Burning Man: individuality and community

September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

“An error that is too often made is believing that individualism rejects organization. The two terms are, on the contrary, inseparable. Individualism more specifically means working for inner mental liberation of the individual, while organization means association between conscious individuals with a goal to reach” – Max Baginski

A hexagonal wooden structure with some people on and around it, a rainbow in the background.

Image courtesy of Dan Dawson.

All political theories and movements have to grapple with the tension between individual freedoms and the good of the community as a whole. Burning Man, as an expression of a particular political, social, and economic vision, is no exception. Perhaps the most obvious signs of this are in the ten principles, which include “radical self-reliance” and “radical self-expression”, but also “radical inclusion”, “communal effort”, and “civic responsibility”.

The balance between individual freedom and collective responsibility that the organisers of Burning Man community promote draws significantly on anarchism. The organisers differentiate between the “popular notion of anarchy”, which they see as summoning up “visions of a gutted landscape populated by violent outlaws” and “philosophic anarchism”, which is based on “cooperation and mutual aid”. They insist that Burning Man, while encouraging individual freedoms, is at the same time a community-constituted “ordered civic entity”.

The anarchist ideas that inform Burning Man are just part of the mix, of course, and there is an emphasis in Burning Man culture on encouraging participants to choose for themselves how the event is experienced and interpreted. There are limits to what individuals can do, including legal limits and social expectations of what constitutes good behaviour, but there’s a lot of flexibility involved. This means there’s plenty of room for participants to work out where their own balance lies: how much to privilege their own desires and self-expression, how much energy to give to maintaining and improving the community, and how to find the space where each of these overlap.

Photo of a man held aloft over the playa by a bunch of huge, colourful balloons.

Photo courtesy of flickr user mayhem.

This doesn’t always work out well. There are people who come to Burning Man and don’t participate and/or don’t bring basic necessities like food and water. There are people who don’t respect others’ autonomy: Black Rock City is a large city, and as in the rest of the world violent assaults and sexual assaults do happen. There are probably plenty of people who come, have fun, and take back nothing of significance – positive or negative – with them.

Burning Man isn’t a perfect manifestation of anarchism in practice, despite some of the more idealistic discourse floating around. However, it does allows participants to explore different ways of being individuals as part of a community. Partly this is because of the different social environment surrounding Burning Man, but it’s also partly just because it’s a rupture with everyday life for many participants which in itself invites experimentation. This experimentation will have to involve working out how to deal with problems as well as with the pleasures involved. How might the community legislate for itself? How might it encourage adherence to community values? How might it encourage a safer environment?

And, of course, the question that keeps getting asked is: which of the experiments in autonomy and community will be taken back to participants’ communities off the playa?

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