Burning Man as a cultural force is getting more interesting, not less, as it gets more mainstream attention and access to discourses about self and society. (Why yes, “Discourses about Self and Society” WAS a seminar that I took as a sophomore English major. Why do you ask?) No major cultural movement travels in a straight line, and no one can tell which aspects of Burner culture will be most challenging, or potentially revolutionary, as it catches on in new cultures and geographies.
The most interesting new challenge I see emerging comes as Burning Man is increasingly attended, referenced, and cited, by both academics and members of the tech industry – work cultures that, in their own ways, claim to be highly driven meritocracies.
Both are increasingly citing Burning Man as a model and a form of inspiration. And yet Burning Man … fundamentally and unambiguously … is not a meritocracy. Is, in fact, perhaps our most significant cultural movement at the present time to directly challenge the very idea that a meritocracy is the way we want to order society.
(Why yes, “The Way We Want to Order Society” was a post-graduate seminar I took during the summer for no credit. Why do you ask?)
This isn’t an explicit challenge, of course: one of the most interesting (and I’d argue effective) things about Burning Man is precisely that it doesn’t require anyone to sign a loyalty oath when they walk through the gate. (Unless you count a spanking …) Burning Man no more “calls out” a meritocracy any more than it calls out industrial pollution. But just as there’s no question that, taken to their even vaguely logical conclusions, the principles of Burning Man – if followed – would prevent industrial pollution, it’s pretty clear that – if followed – the principles of Burning Man would dismantle the application of meritocracies.
The meritocratic system – in which one’s abilities and drive entitle one to a greater share of social rewards and control – breaks down in a number of ways in a Burning Man context:
- Without currency, there’s no clear way to keep score. Let’s admit that society is shallow enough that the only reason it values stock brokers over forest rangers is that stock brokers get lots more money. Take that away, even imperfectly, and how do you know who has more “merit”? The teacher or the code warrior? The CEO or the social worker?
- Indeed, the very idea that “merit” is an existing thing that ought to be rewarded is itself a kind of commidification: to the extent that “merit” is a thing that someone can display, and trade for a share of goods and services, it is a commodity. As has been said a thousand and one times, and will doubtless need to be said a thousand and one more: Burning Man isn’t “anti-money” – it believes in “decommodification.” That applies to people, and their attributes, even more than it applies to things. “Meritocracies” commoditize people quite directly.
- To the extent that “merit” creates a hierarchy, it is exclusive – while Burning Man is radically inclusive. It’s one thing to say “you don’t know how to do a job – yet – and so it’s not safe for you to do it.” It’s another thing to say “you’re not good enough, and so will never get a chance.” The one is common sense – the other a meritocratic statement that runs counter to the Burning Man grain. The idea of Radical Inclusion is to dissolve the barriers that keep us apart: meritocracies exist entirely by putting such barriers up.
- It’s no accident that the most spectacular applications of the things that meritocracies lionize – competence, vision, drive, talent – when applied in a Burning Man context generally result in a benefit to the community more than the individual. It doesn’t have to be this way – it’s not a hard and fast rule – but it’s also not an accident. The values of Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility mean that the fruits of truly spectacular labor bend away from the individual and towards the community as a whole. A bigger and better theme camp has more to offer the playa, as does a bigger and better art car, or an even more amazing art project. Nor are any of these things generally accomplished by a lone genius: instead a whole camp and crew, usually of volunteers, are involved. This isn’t to say that there might not be a singular genius attached to a project – but he’s not “lone” in any way. The Burning Man ethos bends (again, there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule here) towards rewarding the guy who keeps the genius’ camp clean and the woman who fixes his generator as much as the guy who stands in the middle and barks orders. There are, no question, leaders and followers, but the emphasis is clearly on work getting done, on the shared purpose, more than it is assigning credit.
- Do I even need to talk about gifting in this context? Do I? Really?
- Participation should be similarly obvious, but I think it does need to be pointed out: a participatory ethos, like a gifting ethos, runs contrary to the hoarding of power than almost any kind of “ocracy” other than a “do-ocracy” (and potentially a democracy) involves. The whole point of an “ocracy” is to determine who does and does not get to participate at certain levels. A meritocracy says “take the most capable individual, and put them in charge.” An ethic of Radical Participation asks: “How can we get as many people as possible to be meaningfully involved in every aspect of this culture” – including the top jobs. Whatever benefit you gain from having people who (at least in their own minds) are really extraordinarily capable having exclusive access to leadership positions is outweighed by the fact that the rest of the organization is denied the capacity to participate in a meaningful way. The idea isn’t that everyone is the same, or equal, or needs to be treated the same way: but the goal is to eliminate fiefdoms and offer meaningful opportunities to participate at every level. There will always be leaders and followers, but the privilege of participating as either is never “earned” – it is continuously given, and thus will be fluid, moving up and down: there’s no reason that today’s general on one project isn’t tomorrow’s private on another. The fact that so many “meritorious” people have a problem with that … “But I’m too (special/capable/brilliant/precious/important) to be a follower sometimes on something important” … is exactly what makes an ethos of radical participation “radical” to a meritocracy.
But perhaps the deepest challenge to the meritocratic mindset by Burning Man is what the 10 Principles specifically go out of their way not to say.
Nowhere in the 10 Principles, or any official Burning Man literature, does anything ever say what exactly Burning Man is for. What the desired end result is. It’s left an open question – and whether that’s post-modernism or pluralism is up to those who care to debate it. (Why yes, “Post-Modernism or Pluralism” was the title of a paper I turned for Semiotics 405. Why do you ask?)
This matters because a meritocracy as a system has two justifications. One is a moral case: it’s only right that people of greater ability and drive should be given more reward by society. Burning Man’s 10 Principles explicitly reject that case. No one has to participate in Burning Man, but for those who do the event and culture is inclusive, participatory, giving, and fluid. We’re not even sure what “merit” is exactly.
The second case for a meritocracy is that it is efficacious: that it creates a more efficient system than other options. The assumption here, often made explicit in the corporate and tech worlds, is that efficiency is always better. We organize the way we do because efficiency is the goal.
But Burning Man has no explicit goal, and in any case efficiency is not it. While efficiency is sometimes prized … a faster way to get people in and out of the desert is a goal devoutly to be wished … the very act of putting Burning Man on is, as its critics often point out, radically inefficient. Surely there is a better use of our time than to build and burn a giant man?
Well … there is surely a more efficient use of our time. Many of them. But a *better* use? Obviously we don’t think so. Efficiency, while a value, is not an overriding value: indeed, art and whimsy are arguably some of the least efficient projects on Earth.
If meritocracies are not inherently more moral, and if the efficiency they (allegedly) bring out is not an overriding goal, then the case for meritocracies dissolves. The existence and success of Burning Man culture is itself an implicit challenge to meritocratic systems.
What’s the implication of this? I have no idea. We’re in new territory here.
But let me offer a little speculation. There is a great deal of criticism in the world today of market-driven consumer capitalism: it’s seen by many as a spiritually barren wasteland lacking a conscious. Its defenders generally justify it on meritocratic grounds: it rewards the able, which is a moral good, and those who do badly deserve to do so.
Part of the appeal of Burning Man across so many cultures may be that if offers a cogent alternative to this meritocratic justification for the world as it is.
Indeed, it may be that one of their reasons Burning Man seems to have such appeal among the academic and tech sectors – which are both, in their own way, hothouses of meritocratic thinking – is precisely that it offers those most trapped in their meritocracies a temporary escape.
But that’s just speculation. I don’t speak for any of them.
It will be interesting to see, as other areas of culture try to implement Burning Man-like approaches to their own work, how they address Burning Man’s challenge to meritocracy. When Larry Page called for a “tech Burning Man,” for example, did he have in mind the presence of a fluid hierarchy, the participatory ethos, and the lack of “efficiency” as a governing principle? Or did he imagine an environment in which an existing hierarchy (justified through merit) is even more able to do what it wants without regard for others involved?
Again, I don’t know. But there’s a lot riding on the answer. It may be that the greater challenge that Burning Man poses to the world-as-it-is and its entrenched interests is not the decommodification of money, but the decommidification of people and hierarchy.
Or something we haven’t thought of yet. It gets more complicated, more interesting, and more unpredictable as it spreads – not less.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the name of a mutation recently discovered by accidentally spilling a pina colada across a map of the human genome. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com