A commenter named “First Timer” read my post chiding our community for the shared bicycle program, and leaped to the most pessimistic conclusions possible.
He or she wrote:
The concept of moving this (Burning Man) to the larger world seems destined to failure.
Its (sic) been tried thousands and thousands of times in the history of man.
It always works… until the group grows to the point at which there are strangers in the group. At this point the group shame that gets applied to slackers and non-contributors goes away for strangers and people start to take more than they produce or provide. This requires an organizational structure to enforce the rules. This enforcement is not voluntary cooperation so it takes an authoritarian form. As the group grows the power in this authority grows and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Can someone explain how decomdification and communal effort differs from the basic tenants of socialism/Communism that have failed over and over throughout history?
The answer to that last question is an easy “Yes.” Burning Man differs from Communism in that:
A) Nobody is forced to participate. In fact, you have to pay to get in – and that’s only if you’re willing to travel to a remote and inhospitable location, with absolutely no accommodations or luxuries other than what you haul yourself.
Which is to say: in the Soviet Union, they forced dissidents to go to Siberia. At Burning Man, dissidents get furious that there aren’t enough tickets.
B) Communism involves seizing the means of production from the ownership classes in order to create a dictatorship of the proletariat. Burning Man, by contrast, involves this giant man that gets burned.
It’s a subtle distinction, but crucial.
C) Communism places no value on self-reliance – while that’s one of Burning Man’s core values. People living in a communist society have the expectation that their shelter, food, and water, will be taken care of by the government. Burning Man explicitly instructs you to bring your own goddamn shelter, food, water, and anything else you need. People who don’t are seen as leeches and sparkle ponies.
Burning Man’s concepts of “gifting” and “decommodification” in a context of basically self-reliant individuals is completely different than seizing wealth in order to provide everyone with an equal standard of living.
In fact, for all the grumbling about people using wealth as a way to avoid participation on the playa (I’ve done that myself) no one has ever claimed that everyone on the playa should have an equal standard of camping. Far from it. Our objections aren’t to rich people bringing stuff to the desert – it’s that some of them mistake “having toys” for “participation.” They’re not the same thing.
So, in short: Burning Man is nothing like communism, you ignorant slut.
I think we can expect to have conversations like this a lot in the future. Burning Man is unusual enough that it’s difficult for people who haven’t been there to take it on its own terms: it’s easy for them to reach for an analogy that is quick, easy, and wrong.
And the more Burning Man talks about being a movement and changing the world, the more we’re going to be pushed into conversations along the lines of: “aren’t you just like (INSERT HISTORICAL MOVEMENT HERE) and won’t you fail just like they did?”
It’s crucial then, to develop ways of talking about Burning Man that clearly distinguish it from other movements.
That said, the larger question posed by this first time burner is a fair one: even if we are unique, what does make us think that we can actually change society? First Timer is right to point out that history littered with the graves of self-important movements who thought they could make a difference.
Can we really change the world, or are we kidding ourselves? I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t asked myself the same question.
The truth is I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think Burning Man could be socially relevant as well as magical sexy fun. But “changing the world” covers a lot of ground. Before we ask “can we do it,” we need to know: what would success look like?
A dear friend of mine had once been a part of the “back to the land” movement in the 70s. I asked him, decades after the movement’s collapse, if he thought they had accomplished anything.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“They sell granola at Wal-Mart.”
That may be a punch-line, but it’s not a joke. Movements like his led to the increased production and prominence of things like granola and organic foods, which increased the opportunities for others to experience it, which increased the demand for it, until it got appropriated by mainstream society. The movement foundered, but the co-option of this positive good goes on. They changed the world, and you’re eating that change.
If something similar happened to Burning Man, would we consider it a success?
What about Christianity? As movements go, it was bigger than Jesus. It inspired Western society’s code of ethics and major artistic accomplishments. For millennia, governments had to be based upon it, and wars were fought in its name. People were persecuted for violating its standards. In many parts of the world, being Christian is still a litmus test.
Is that what success looks like to us?
How about the Brookings Institute? It’s had a big impact on the academic and political discourse. It can influence the conversation important people have about important issues, but it doesn’t … you know … actually *do* anything.
If Burning Man became that, would we consider it a success or failure?
We don’t have to adopt any of these models, in fact I don’t think we can. Part of what makes Burning Man so interesting is that it is, as I’ve argued before, a truly unique cultural movement – warts and all. I’m not sure anybody knows the best way to harness it yet – and we are almost certainly going to make mistakes. But what we aim for matters, and it matters how we define success.
I’m not sure we know that yet.
My suspicion is that Burning Man will come to this crucial decision in an improvised, experimental kind of way … which is completely in keeping with its history as a major cultural touchstone that never actually envisioned being a major cultural touchstone until after the fact.
Still – we can learn from the mistakes made by movements in the past. In that spirit I do have four pieces of unsolicited advice for Burning Man and its new non-profit about changing the world … whatever that means. I hope it’s helpful.
1) You can put a piece of shit on an art car and fire dance around it, but it’s still a piece of shit. The trappings of Burning Man … the costumes, the music, the art cars … can’t change the world. The more attention you pay to them, the less attention you have for what can. Before you put any event or program together, ask yourselves if this is basically something you could see in Vegas. If it is, try something else.
2) Don’t casually embrace the political process. Part of the reason people have such passion for Burning Man is that our political system is broken. It’s broken because of the politicians who will happily embrace you if you’ll only play their game. You have to work with them … you do … but the more you play along the more Burning Man will smell like a failed democracy.
Play with politicians only when they have something concrete to offer, and never give them a platform, even when they’re using it to say nice things about you. They’ve already let down the people you most want to reach.
3) Don’t follow the money. I know that’s counter-intuitive … I know you need money and you need it fast because every non-profit needs money and needs it fast. But if you let funders dictate terms they’ll never let you change the world. If you prove you can change the world without them they’ll come to you.
Remember what a win looks like, and don’t kid yourselves. To the extent that you create a mechanism for strangers to connect and collaborate in a meaningful way, you win. This isn’t just “getting strangers together in one place to look at art” – that’s a movie matinee. This isn’t just “holding a focus group to listen to what people have to say” – that’s a focus group. We have those already. You’re looking for a way that people can get together with strangers and make choices that are meaningful to their lives … about art and public space, yes, and also about sustainability and community and civic pride. About, when you get down to it, whatever they want.
Anything that doesn’t accomplish this is a failure. Potentially a worthwhile failure, potentially a necessary failure, potentially a failure you can learn a lot from … but it’s still a failure. Don’t be afraid of failure; fail if you have to, but don’t confuse it with a win. That’s how we lose our way in this failed and toxic world – the world we want to change.
That, at least, is my advice: I’d love to hear yours. If you have some, write it in the comments section below.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com