Burning Man: Reaching Out

Creating change requires building coalitions, spreading a movement beyond its initial, committed core. This year’s theme, Rites of Passage, was interpreted by many participants in individual terms, but has also been described by Burning Man organisers as shaping Burning Man’s relationship to a world in crisis:

We are living in a period of widespread fear and insecurity. We cling to what we have, but what we’ve had was merely the illusion of a mortgaged future. Nothing that we see around us feels sustainable. As one who blunders off a cliff, our legs still twiddle in the air: we haven’t gained a foothold that will see us through. Deeply-fathomed change we share with others — the kind of change that summons up the earth to meet one’s feet — becomes the only pathway forward, our most crucial step.

This framing encourages a shift away from the divide that many burners draw between Burning Man and the ‘default world‘, “The rest of the world that is not the playa during the Burning Man event.” Burners often emphasise the difference between Burning Man and the rest of their lives, and the difficulty of re-integrating into the ‘default world’ after Burning Man: a quick search of online forums will turn up a whole heap of threads about dealing with the shift.

Larry Harvey being interviewed on the stage of TEDx BRC
Photo courtesy of flickr user Audrey Penven

During his talk at TEDx BRC, Larry Harvey criticised this way of thinking about the rest of life outside Burning Man as the default world. He argued that this implies the ‘source code’ of reality always resets: no change is possible. However, going back to everyday life as part of the Burning Man community means that burners do have the resources to create change.

Harvey, along with other speakers at TEDx BRC and elsewhere at Burning Man, explicitly called for Burning Man to play a greater role in helping to change mainstream society. Two or three different speakers, including Larry Harvey, quoted Milton Friedman in describing Burning Man’s potential to embody alternatives to the systems we have no:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

If Burning Man is going to model alternatives in a way that has a potential to be politically useful, the Burning Man community needs to move away from seeing Black Rock City as being separate from, and other to, the rest of the world.

Even the best alternatives are useless if noone knows about them, or if they’re misunderstood. There are plenty of people out there arguing that Burning Man is more than just “one big drug-addled rave party in the desert”. (The argument is slightly complicated by the fact that, for many participants, this is exactly what Burning Man is all about.) But I think more probably needs to be done to raise awareness of the alternatives that Burning Man has to offer: which of its systems can be transferred to our everyday lives?

Linked to this is the need for Burning Man communities to not only expand their reach outwards into off-playa communities, but also to learn more from off-playa communities. As I noted in my first post, Burning Man participants are not a particularly diverse bunch. This means that the alternatives that we build out there and the ways in which we think they might apply to everyday life are often going to be limited by our own experiences. I heard a heap of people talking about how to escape the constraints of their (reasonably well-paid) nine to five jobs, or how to give themselves more room for creative expression in their lives. I didn’t hear anyone talk about how to deal with foreclosures, or long-term unemployment, or the US’ serious institutional racism. If the Burning Man community is going to offer solutions, there are good reasons to think critically about what the real problems actually are.

There are plenty of people involved in the event who are taking steps to make the principles behind the event relevant and useful beyond Burning Man. The well-established Burners Without Borders and the newly-created Burning Man Project are promising developments. Those involved in the latter aim to “bring experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems and inspire a sense of culture, community and cultural engagement.”

If this is going to succeed, Burning Man communities will need to build links with other organisations and movements. I’ve argued elsewhere that we need to see more effective coalition-building, particularly from those who want to create progressive change but don’t necessarily have a background in left-leaning activism. I’m curious to see how well burners will link up with other communities, particularly those that are economically and politically marginalised. The networks that are built in coming years will, I think, play a large role in determining whether 2011 will really have been a Rite of Passage in Burning Man’s development.

Burning Man: individuality and community

“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?

Burning Man

Burning Man is a ridiculous, extravagant, glorious event held out in the Nevada desert once a year. I’ve been twice now, and although it’s ostensibly been during my holidays I can’t help but explore the ways in which it intersects with my research and activist interests. Burning Man runs almost entirely on a gift economy, and is built on a culture that encourages everyone to participate rather than passively consume the experience, attempts to respect the environment, and tries to find a balance between individual autonomy and communal effort. (Burning Man’s Ten Principles go into more detail about this.)

A view of Black Rock City from the air
Black Rock City, courtesy of Flickr user Stargazer95050

Many of those who participate in Burning Man see it as an attempt to build alternatives to mainstream social, economic, and political structures, and inevitably there are plenty of contradictions in how this plays out in practice. Just getting to Burning Man requires significant financial resources and involves a heap of environmentally-unfriendly travel (especially if you’re silly enough to be travelling from Australia). Despite “radical inclusion” being the first principle guiding Burning Man, most people there are white and reasonably well-off (you can find some data on this in the Burning Man Census under Income and Spending). These kinds of issues, however, are not unique to Burning Man: there are similar contradictions between intent and practice in other events which attempt to embody and inspire change, including the World Social Forum.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to write more about how Burning Man works and share some of my thoughts on the TEDx Black Rock City and EFF speaker series that I attended there. In the meantime, if you want to get some sense of what Burning Man is like, this is a nice (if cheesy) introduction to the people and art from 2011 Burning Man (with some partial nudity):