The Fyre Festival was supposed to be the height of opulence. The event debuted in a promo video starring the world’s top supermodels and was hyped on social media by hundreds of celebrity influencers. Thousands of people spent thousands of dollars each for a weekend on a private island in the Bahamas — supposedly once owned by Pablo Escobar — where they would stay in luxury villas, ride jet skis, and rub elbows with Ja Rule and Bella Hadid.
In the end, as the world soon learned, there was nothing to the Fyre Festival besides the viral marketing campaign itself. The partygoers arrived not to a private island, but to an undeveloped tract of land adjacent to a Sandals resort on the populated island of Great Exuma. The lot had no sewage or running water. Instead of catered high-end cuisine, guests were fed forlorn-looking cheese sandwiches in flimsy foam take-out boxes. Instead of glamping colonies with “elevated amenities,” they were directed to rows of FEMA disaster relief tents, vacant inside save for mattresses soaked with rainwater.
In the Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, one of two competing new documentary films about the festival, witnesses describe the chaotic scene over shaky cellphone footage. “It was the most eerie feeling in the world.” “It looked like a horror scene.” “It became very barbaric.” Fyre immediately became a national punchline.
“People were stoked to watch this thing go down,” recalls one festival organizer in the doc, and it’s easy to understand why. The event was an occasion for the rich to revel in their riches, and for middle-class aspirants to roleplay obscene wealth.
But instead of an embarrassment of riches, the rich were embarrassed. Contrary to popular belief, Americans actually resent affluence, and that resentment animated the giddy responses to Fyre attendees’ ordeal.
Fyre has become an enduring object of fascination for one big reason: it flipped the traditional class script. Rich people aren’t supposed to be trapped in grim settings lacking ordinary conveniences, and they aren’t supposed to be ripped off by capitalists without any recompense. That stuff is for poor people. In the annals of class and culture, the Fyre Festival will go down in history as a delicious deviation.
But there’s something not quite accurate about this legacy. Taken altogether, the story of the Fyre Festival is not really anomalous or inconsistent with capitalism at all. It’s more like a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon, an exceptionally absurd expression of a culture thoroughly deformed by exploitation and inequality, making an enjoyable mockery out of all the other less-fun absurdities that happen constantly under a society structured around the pursuit of profit.
Yes the Fyre Festival was a spectacularly ludicrous failure, but it’s equally ludicrous that we live in a world where it was possible for it to succeed. Consider, for example, how the Fyre Festival’s organizers acquired funding for this legendary trainwreck. The event’s mastermind, millennial entrepreneur and now-convicted fraudster Billy McFarland, courted investors by namedropping prestigious connections and a dazzling investment history, converting the aura of wealth into actual wealth into more actual wealth.
It happens that McFarland exaggerated his company’s assets, which along with his festival inexperience led Fyre down the road to ruin. But even if it hadn’t worked out so disastrously, it would still be ridiculous. And it happens all the time.
In our society people are frequently rewarded for having large amounts of money with even larger amounts of money, while at the same time the poor are milked for cash as punishment for their poverty. Every time an angel investor notices that another angel investor has given a startup millions of dollars for a redundant or frivolous app and rushes in with matching funds, a Fyre Festival-esque racket plays out right under our noses. Corporations exaggerate their importance in order to coax financial investment from other corporations or wealthy individuals all the time. And we don’t don’t bat an eyelash — we’re that accustomed to the rich get richer for no good reason.
Fyre organizers used that cash from investors to pay other already wealthy people unconscionable amounts of money to promote the event. Kendall Jenner received $250,000 for a single cryptic, buzz-generating Instagram post of a blank orange tile and a handful of Fyre-related hashtags. This is not unique to Fyre — Instagram influencer marketing is a billion-dollar industry. But more importantly, it’s a variation on the same theme: the wealthy get massive paydays as a result of being wealthy, while billions around the globe must labor, often in degrading conditions, for every precious cent.
This is not an anomaly — this is the essence of capitalism. And it’s a completely irrational way to structure a society, whether or not a handful of partygoers get stranded on an island as a result.
McFarland hired roughly two hundred local Bahamian day laborers to clear the land and erect rudimentary infrastructure for six weeks prior to the festival. Having spent millions of dollars to make his festival viable, McFarland was strapped. He promised the workers delayed payment. “They had every living soul on the island of Exuma who could lift a towel working,” says a local woman in the Netflix doc.
When the extent of the disaster became clear and the festival was officially canceled — too late, after many guests had already arrived at the glorified refugee camp — the workers realized that deferred compensation might very well turn into wage theft.
“As soon as they realized that all of this was collapsing,” said one witness, the workers “started, rightfully so, demanding their payment. So there was, sort of, a strike.”
As the angry workers descended on the Fyre headquarters, McFarland and his team fled the island. The workers were never paid.
While the situation may be unique, this is standard capitalist practice. American employers steal billions of dollars from workers every year, and wage theft is a predictable hazard of being poor around the world. The thing about the rich getting richer is that they also get more powerful, and can either evade punishment for labor infractions or pay a relatively negligible fine that hardly deters them from reoffending.
This part of the Fyre saga follows the traditional class script verbatim, and it’s just as outlandish as all of the script-flipping parts of the story — only less funny.
McFarland went down for fraud, which is a little comforting, though only for six years. “I actually wouldn’t be surprised,” said one festival organizer in the Netflix doc, “if ten years down the line we’re gonna be hearing about Billy McFarland starting some other kind of venture that’s imaginative and gets some serious momentum, and this happens in some form again.”
Maybe, maybe not. But who cares about Billy McFarland? The biggest scam of all time is happening right before our eyes, as the wealthy transform their ill-gotten fortunes into bigger fortunes and subject everyone else to their whims and prerogatives. In final analysis, capitalism’s success stories are just as preposterous as its epic failures.