Burning Man is not “like Occupy Wall Street.”

Photo by David Shankbone (Creative Commons license)

I’ve heard Occupy Wall Street described as being “like Burning Man” several times now.  Sometimes that’s just by the jackasses at Fox News, but sometimes it’s by people who might know enough about at least one of them to have a point.  Occasionally it’s meant as a compliment.

But is it right?

Occupy Wall Street is certainly an experiment in socially relevant communal living that involves camping and picking up after yourselves … and to the extent that any anybody doing that is “like Burning Man,” they’re like Burning Man.

And they’ve both apparently got a lot of people offering to lead yoga.  So, there’s that.

The more I think about it, though, the more the comparison seems inaccurate – and even unfavorable to both groups.  People say Occupy Wall Street is “like Burning Man” as a means of deflecting attention away from its political relevance.  “Oh those kids,” they’re saying.  “You know how they like to get together and camp and do crazy things.  I bet there’s a guy on stilts!  Like Burning Man!”  The implicit suggestion is that because Burning Man is a spectacle, that’s all Occupy Wall Street is.

On the other side, suggesting that Occupy Wall Street is like Burning Man implies that all Burning Man has to offer a political cause is style.  Bring in the camping!  The DJs!  Wear crazy costumes!  Have a positive attitude!  That’s SO Burning Man!

Like Hell that’s all we are.  It’s true that Burning Man has no particular political goals and nothing remotely like a 5 point plan to save society – but I think that the values that Burning Man brings to the table and the process by which it gets things done have a lot more to offer society-and-its-discontented than just art cars and midnight bacon parties.

Although, for the record, every presidential nominating convention should have a midnight bacon party.  It’s democralicious!

In particular, I’d suggest that Occupy Wall Street is focused on saying “No” – no to fat cats, no to plutocrats, no to the banking industry, no to business without accountability.  “No” may be the only thing the people involved can agree on.  Burning Man, by contrast, is focused on affirmation:  bring something, build something, create something that everyone can participate in!  Burning Man’s anarchic spirit, though very real, is usually sublimated to a variety of very specific goals – wouldn’t it be cool if we built this and offered it up to the community?

Sure there’s always ambiguity:  people come to Burning Man to get away from the world, and that’s a kind of “no,” while Occupy Wall Street is focused on creating a better world, which is a kind of “yes.”  But these are small ambiguities:  the difference in overall approaches is night and day.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with an honest “no.”  In fact, it can be essential.  And there’s a hell of a lot going on right now that’s worth saying “no” to.  Much of 21st century civilization, in fact.  But I’d like to propose that the spirit of affirmation that Burning Man does so well, coupled with its philosophy of self-reliance and gifting, is what it has to offer activists and world-savers of every stripe – and that it’s distinct from protesting, however cooperative the group.

This isn’t just an academic distinction:  it offers a concrete set of differences.  Burning Man and its auxiliaries have done tremendous good for the world but, to my knowledge, have never protested anything.  Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Solar, and a host of other small organizations spend a great deal of time helping disaster victims and installing solar panels.  They do not protest Big Energy and companies that emit Co2.

To be “like Burning Man,” then, is not to protest but to build alternatives that anyone can use … and have more fun than anyone else doing it.

What would it mean in this case?  Well, take the banks:  even if we hold companies and their executives accountable for crimes that have been committed, we still need to create a better banking system.  We need to build banks and credit unions that will eschew ridiculous fees, that will loan to small businesses, and that will invest in the communities around them.  Can we build those banks ourselves?  Can we build those credit unions together?

If we can, then what are we waiting for?  Start now.  The very act of creating a bank like that would give millions of angry people and socially responsible companies the option of putting their money someplace that wouldn’t use it to destroy the middle class.    As they took it, draining funds from banks that are social irresponsible, they’d be making a real change.

That comes from a “yes,” not a “no,” and it would make a huge difference.  That, to me, is the substance of the Burning Man way.

No one has to do that, of course, but it makes a distinction – one that I think is crucial – between Burning Man’s style and substance.  We need that distinction:  too often media portrayals focus on the style alone.  Too often we make it too easy.

In this sense I’d say I see a lot more “Burning Man” in Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone in NYC, than in Occupy Wall Street, or any event where someone happens to be wearing fuzzy boots.

When Canada was told that poor schools serving Harlem’s community were never going to be better, he created charter schools that would;  when he was told that the children he was serving weren’t healthy, he created child health programs for them;  told that parents lacked the skills necessary to support the schools, he started parenting workshops.

It’s been phenomenally successful – it’s also been tried, and failed, in other cities around the country.  The model isn’t enough, the plans aren’t enough … it takes a certain, selfless, DIY spirit and an ability to create using the tools you have.  It takes a sense of joy in giving rather than bureaucratic process. That DIY spirit and ability is rare in America: the inhabitants of Black Rock City do it every year.  The only difference (aside from the fact that Geoffrey Canada was doing it first) is that Burning Man’s community has yet to take on a challenge as intractable as intergenerational poverty … while Canada has yet to look like he’s having half as much fun as we do.

None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with protesting.  Politicians need to be told no, executive crime needs to be prosecuted.  I’m just saying:  it’s not “like Burning Man.”  Even if you’re naked.

To the extent that Burning Man has anything to offer the protest movements of today and tomorrow, I think that spirit of affirmation is it – a crash course in how to focus on Yes when the world makes you want to scream “No!”  No hula hoops necessary.

What you do with it, of course, is up to you.  That’s the point.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

20 Comments on “Burning Man is not “like Occupy Wall Street.”

  • Sam says:

    A good example of B-man teaching people to focus on Yes… A few Denver area Rangers have been asked to help with the Occupy Denver protests, keeping friendly order amongst the protesters. They aren’t in B-man ranger gear or acting in any official capacity, of course, but people looked at B-man and thought, “Those guys sure know how to self-police” and asked for assistance. A positive contribution, I’d say. Intelligent self-policing is way better than unintelligent outside policing.

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  • joe says:

    Fun article. Well written. I enjoy your posts. We can all make a positive difference and it is up to us.

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  • 666isMONEY says:

    A lot of the ppl at the OWS protests are for a gifting, sustainable economy however, very few talk about abolishing money.

    I like what U said here: “people come to Burning Man to get away from the world”.

    I go to BM to escape reality, I hate reality. (I enjoy being out in the open playa, the art & music best — BRC itself is like Babylon.) Ppl at OWS are trying to change reality.

    BRC is not sustainable neither is Reality, the way we’re living now.

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  • simon of the playa says:

    wall street needs more cowbell.

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  • Cheryl says:

    There are thousands of Burners at the OWS protests. They are leading the way in feeding the masses, dealing with sanitation issues and maintaining a positive vibe when the Cops show up ! Burning Man has been the training ground for radical self reliance and now those skills are being utilized in the default world !

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  • John Stoner says:

    Great points, though I’d say setting up another conventional bank that produces dollars is unlikely to solve any big problems.

    I’d say establishing a robust, viral alternative currency is probably a better path forward. And yes, there are burners on the case. For details, check out my blog above.

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  • Mars says:

    I kinda wished that this blog had either ignored the comparison, or at least left the task of writing about it to someone who supports OWS. I thought this was really just more tooting our own horn. Personally I’m annoyed at the idea that “having fun while we do it” makes any group’s tactics/ways/culture better than another’s.

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  • Fez says:

    The post was starting out well, until it descended into the nonsense about saying “no” versus saying “yes” and saying that Geoffrey Canada is better than Occupy Wall Street. Maybe the real reason Burning Man isn’t like Occupy Wall Street is that their media representatives aren’t jerks.

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  • Marisa says:

    You’re right. Burning man is no longer free $$$. Occupy Wall Street is.

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  • Marisa says:

    Also, there is no ‘gate’ at OWS keeping people out that can’t afford a ticket. Face it, Burning Man has gone corporate… it hasn’t been worth going to since Jerry died. Burning Man by my calculations grossed well over $10,000,000 last year…. Burning man is a joke and they’re laughing all the way to the bank….lol

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  • Un-Sheepled says:

    Burning Man is a circle jerk for rich leftists; OWS is a circle jerk for poor leftists.

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  • Swizzledoop says:


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  • Hi there My name is Christopher Ray i am a committee leader with OccupySF. I Believe in the differences, you were well put here. The Burner Community for the most part does support our cause, in fact our cause will only make the Burning Man Community Grow and flourish. We ARE BUILDING SOMETHING, and not all the way out in the desert but in the streets of our citys, for the world to see, so they can join and celebrate our coming freedom together. I think its vital for the Burning Man Community to have made this statement, the next step is to bring your innovations and voice forward come to our general assembly, listen to what we are saying, and let your voice be heard we would be proud to have you in San Francisco. After all your movement was Born Here!!

    Get in touch with me id like to keep this conversation going!

    Christopher Ray

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  • Dan says:

    I just got back from NYC where I walked around Zuccotti Park, and I did wonder about Burning Man, where I was lucky enough to spend the last two Labor Day weekends. I agree, the connection between this and Burning Man is tenuous. The group on the ground there seems to be much more disenfranchised than the average Burner. I think your point about YES is a good one. What I’d like to see from Burning Man, or Burners, is more active help on the ground, more evangelism of the Burner “Rules of the Road”. Why isn’t that happening? Is there a misalignment of politics, or is there too much apathy, or do the “Rules” not have much value when you’re trying to turn around the banking system? They’re trying, with free libraries, free food, persistence, etc., but they don’t have the tools to turn the banks around. Yes, you can act locally and try to create bank with the attributes you mention, but investors must be satisfied and regulators, too. Full disclosure, my politics align with Occupy Wall Street. They do not align with the voice of Reason, the libertarian streak that runs through Burning Man, nor with the Charter School Movement which your post puts on a pedestal.

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  • Finnegan says:

    OWS is doing a fantastic job, but they could really use more burner support. They need experience with infrastructure, shelter building, community kitchens, communications, med tents, etc. Burners have this expertise, and we need to share it. Please go join your local OWS today!

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  • Huggy Bear says:

    Burning Man and OWS are each significant, but I agree that they are definitely not the same. I find it useful to think of OWS being primarily about ‘no’ and BM being primarily about ‘yes’, and I don’t believe that construct lessens either group.

    I see BM as being primarily about spiritual connection and freedom of expression, while OWS represents the need for social justice and honest relationships between politicians and business leaders. I’ve been to both, and wouldn’t want to see their paths and purposes begin to merge.

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  • Yazzle says:

    Characterizing OWS as a solely negative force doesn’t mesh with reality. At OccupySF, we’ve been building community, infrastructure, and practicing inclusion and consensual decision making. And there’s fun too.. we have the occasional dance party (which tend to be criticized – some people think that Occupiers shouldn’t be having fun), and drum circles and performances. This movement is intended to be broad and inclusive.

    Within the 99%, almost everybody will self-identify with multiple communities, whether that’s determined by your gender, sexuality, political persuasions, or love or hatred of bassnectar. I’m expecting that many of the people reading this thread might self-identify as both burners and occupiers .

    If you do, you might want to follow #OccupyBurners on twitter and participate!

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  • post2277226 says:

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