Why does Burning Man seem so much like a political movement?

This is not Burning Man. Not even close.
This is not Burning Man. Not even close.

As America convulses and political gridlock is on everyone’s mind, it seems as good a time as any to look closely at the facile relationship between Burning Man and politics.

I caught heat, back in 2011, for saying that Burning Man and Occupy Wall Street actually have very little in common.  I think time has vindicated me, but that heat shows that a lot of people see Burning Man as a kind of political movement … or something close to it.  They see Burning Man not just as something capable of influencing society, but as a movement capable of taking power – though they might not use that exact phrase.

And sure, watching people work on their art cars, build their structures, prep their costumes … and especially coming and going from Burning Man, it’s hard to shake the idea that Burning Man is a force that will change the world.

But is it a political force?  Is Burning Man a political movement?

The answer is:  No.  Obviously.  Fuck you.

But … if you disagree with me about this, you’re in good company.  A lot of people do.

Indeed, a really long conversation I had with Whatsblam the Pro shortly prior to the 2013 Burn covered an absurdly wide range of topics, but the time it really popped – started to get heated in a fruitful way – was when we weren’t talking about Burning Man at all but rather the nature of politics and political change.  An informed discussion about Burning Man easily segues into a discussion about the nature of how societies change …  making it easy to disagree about whether or not Burning Man has a place in politics.

Yet the arguments against the notion that Burning Man is a political movement seem overwhelming to me.

–           Burning Man does not encourage anyone to vote in any specific way.  You can’t get accepted for your political beliefs anymore than you can get kicked out for them.  You’re no more or less a Burner if you voted Democrat or Republican, Green or Libertarian.

–          Burning Man does not advance a particular political philosophy.  Nothing in the 10 Principles ever mentions politics, elections, seizing the means of production, taking this country back, or anything else remotely resembling a political slogan.

–          There is no “marching order” at Burning Man, no political organization, no canvassing, no GOTV drives, no mailing lists to tell you who’s “good on our issues.”

–          Burning Man doesn’t even control the “content” of Burning Man to a substantial degree:  it’s a participant driven event and culture, with no artists or participants speaking for anyone but themselves.  If you think building a 25 foot phallus is important, whether or not for political reasons, you go right ahead and do it.  Other Burners will be along to mock it soon enough.

–          Burning Man has never once, in all its history, organized a protest march or rally.  It encourages Burners to find DIY and community solutions to issues they care about, but has never suggested a target of protest.

This isn’t to say that Burning Man can’t be a change agent in the world;  I very much believe it can.  But it’s not a political organization, or an agent of political change per see.

Still people persist  … constantly, consistently … in the idea that Burning Man is a kind of political movement.  And, if I’m being honest, there are times, lots of times, especially in the weeks before the Burn, that this whole thing feels like a cross between a presidential nominating convention and a righteous filibuster.  Fuck yeah.

And that’s interesting.

Why is this?  Why does an event and culture that has done everything in its power to avoid any kind of political power, that has explicitly never tried to capitalize on its following and bully pulpit in the political sphere, feel so much like a political movement?

I think there are two reasons, neither of which have much to do with Burning Man itself and everything to do with the context of modern life in which we all live, breathe, and cry.

The first is that our existing political institutions are so clearly failing that we’re all constantly on the lookout for what the next thing might be.  Burning Man would probably not feel like a political movement if this were a time when we had confidence in our existing institutions.  Instead, however, we live in an era when belief in the institutions we have and the “leaders” who run them is at such a low point that even a prehistoric lake bed starts to look like a greener pasture.  We’re desperate enough that no idea is too stupid.

Islands made of buoyant plastic in international waters?   Sure, we’ll try that!  Returning to the Gold Standard?  Sounds good to some of us!  Social media?  It’s the savior we’ve been waiting for!  Going off the grid?  Bound to work!  Transhumanism?  Can’t fail!  Big Data?  There’s NO WAY that could possibly cause more problems than it solves!

Confidence in our existing institutions is so low we’re one step away from cults based on Saturday morning cartoons.  In an environment where Mitt Romney was a serious candidate for President, Burning Man is bound to look like a good political bet.

But not all of these potential political alternatives get the same amount of cultural traction.  Some fizzle quickly (like the effort to draft a split presidential ticket composed of a Republican and a Democrat), while others gain a massive following seemingly overnight … like Occupy.  Some have staying power, others don’t.

No one explanation will explain why, but one commonality does stand out:  the political alternatives that gain excitement and support, particularly on what we can loosely term the “left” side of the political spectrum, are not “political” reforms at all but rather alternative forms of social order.

Occupy Wall Street, permaculture, hacker collectives … these things are not trying to patch the holes in the existing political order, fix it where it’s broken, or develop incremental improvements.  They’re imagining a whole different way to organize a society, right here, right now.

That inspires the contemporary imagination in a way that one more patch on the leaky boat of liberal democracy doesn’t.  It is the prerogative of the dreamers, the disaffected, and the young, to believe that one big, sweeping, change is not only possible but that it will solve just about everything.

Burning Man doesn’t explicitly promise anything like that.  On the contrary, it’s well established (and patently obvious) that a “year round Burning Man” couldn’t be remotely self-sustaining.  Burning Man as an event depends entirely upon materials and wealth brought in from outside.  The “gift economy” isn’t an “economy” at all.  Burning Man is not political precisely because it never pretends it could replace the existing political and economic structures we have in place.

But it is a transformational experience:  it does offer a new axis around which to organize human interaction, which is the foundation of the social order.

Normally we’d call that a “cultural change agent” and see it (rightfully) as distinct from political change.  But in this time and place, when we are looking towards new forms of social order as viable political alternatives, a cultural change agent like Burning Man looks an awful lot like a political movement.  If in the 60s the “personal was political,” in the 21st century “the social is political.”

It’s easy to make the jump, at that point, from “burning has profoundly changed my life and the way I relate to people,” … which is absolutely true … to “an entirely new social order can be based on Burning Man” … which may or may not be true … to “Burning Man is the solution to our political crisis.”  Which, I’m sorry, is almost certainly not true.

Burning Man feels like a political movement because in this era we are deeply disappointed by where conventional politics has taken us, and many people are looking to new forms of social order as replacements for politics.

But Burning Man fundamentally doesn’t go there.  “Radical Inclusion” is simply not compatible with “building a political movement.”  Radical Self-Expression doesn’t correspond with staying on message.  None of Burning Man’s principles lend themselves to the kind of Machiavellian discipline that is required to build and enforce a political order.

And that’s the point:  they’re better than that.  “Burning Man” is not politics by other means.  It just feels like it, because we all – from every side of the spectrum – wish our system was doing better, and we love what we’ve found here.

By all means, let Burning Man culture guide your political decisions, if you’re so inclined.  But Burner culture does not translate neatly into a political movement.  That’s one wish I’m afraid Burning Man can’t fulfill.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man has pledged to kill the DJ who killed his father.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. 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

23 Comments on “Why does Burning Man seem so much like a political movement?

  • G says:

    This is another of your essays that leaves big philosophical and logical gaps in my mind, basically raising as many or more questions than it answers.

    It does appear to me that at Burning Man, cutting edge contemporary culture comes to the event and is on display, and it is likely a crucible of cultural development. I would also say that when 25% of participants are from outside the USA, that there is some measure of a global dimension to this.

    I would guess that any political effect Burning Man might have would be strictly side effects of any general cultural change resulting from the events.

    “And sure, watching people work on their art cars, build their structures, prep their costumes … and especially coming and going from Burning Man, it’s hard to shake the idea that Burning Man is a force that will change the world.”
    This is another essay of yours that leaves my mind full of many logical and philosophical gaps that beg to be filled. Your writing reveals you to be far more historically knowledgable than I am, do you see something I don’t? This passage just does not add up in my mind. Care to elaborate this point a bit?

    Burning Man as a “force”? IMHO this is another topic for a future essay.

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  • Zhust says:

    I generally agree that Burning Man is not a political movement. But I will add that I think it demonstrates anarchy since it has a virtually non-existent leadership hierarchy, and it invites participants to learn from one another, figure it out for themselves, and be ready to share resources.

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  • People lug around all kinds of baggage, and many of them allow that baggage to color their Burning Man experiences to a foolish, provincial, navel-gazing extent. It’s almost axiomatic that any sentence containing the phrase “what Burning Man is all about” will be pure eye-rolling horseshit coming from someone who is seeing what they want to see and ignoring the rest.

    Naturally, the bulk of that baggage is hippie-spiritual; some of it is political, though. All of it is heavily laden with incorrect assumptions. If Burning Man is a political movement, then so is Carson City, Nevada (population ~56,000).

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  • Slush Rimjob says:

    pol·i·tics ˈpäləˌtiks/ – noun
    1. the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, esp. the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power over humans, institutions, agencies, animals or other things and stuff. – The moment we try to impose our image of the way things ought to be on another individual, we are, in essence, denying our vision in that our desert is what we want it to be. It becomes contradictory at best.

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  • Tam Hunt says:

    Sorry, but Burning Man is very much a political movement, as well as a spiritual and religious movement. It’s a political movement insofar as it taps into and demonstrates the ability to crowdsource government and many other things. The wisdom of the crowd (and folly too, of course) is on display for all to see at the Burn. The whole damn thing happens basically b/c the organizers create a blank canvas with a minimalist social/city structure for the crowd to paint upon. And they do paint. This is the “next big thing” in politics: letting the crowd do so much more than our traditional republican (small r) democracy thinks is possible. A recent essay on these topics: http://www.independent.com/news/2013/oct/09/wisdom-mob/

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  • Issimo says:

    I often think that Burning Man resembles a jelly donut. It takes the effort of many to make one, it is a work of creative genius, it can be approached from any angle, it sustains me, it enlivens my senses, it exists & then it doesn’t, it may or may not be physically good for me, other people want to experience it for themselves, it can cause me to ponder the infinite, it is totally a-political, it can be gifted, and so on.

    But IS Burning Man a jelly donut? No. Obviously. Fuck me.

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  • Kelp says:

    Excellent, thoughtful essay as always. Perhaps the connection with politics is that we would like politicians to be more like Burners – drop the attitude and principles based on personal beliefs, profit, power and the acquisition of ‘stuff,’ and enjoy being human, humanity and creativity. Discuss, listen, evolve, compromise, enjoy, do your thing but also do good for the community.

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  • wei says:

    Love every one of these comments. And I still have a big chip on my shoulder about the theme. (which is not to emphasize the theme, but that we can learn from each other despite our perspective. However, it would behoove Caveat Magister to have his historic facts correct in other posts that rely on the precdents of ethnography, history, and geography).

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  • Mission Rat says:

    Burning Man does not feel like a political movement to me but by its nature has political implications. Outlawing commerce has political implications. Having an alternative “police” force that uses mediation rather than violence or the threat of violence to achieve social goals has political implications. Self-organizing communities with (every increasing) but still relatively limited “governmental” oversight/control has political implications. Social order and interaction not based on consumerism has political implications.

    In short, everything about Burning Man has political implications. But it is not a political event or philosophy. Its very existence as an experimental alternative social order or even system of governance or temporary automonous zone, or whatever words you want to use, is politically significant just as any communes, kibutz, and eco-communities hold an important space as alternative forms of political organization.

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  • Mission Rat says:

    Just to add, commenter, Zhust, that said Burning Man “demonstrates anarchy” seems to be ignoring the enormous bureaucracy that machinates year-round and during the event to administer Burning Man. The rules that impact the lives of 68,000 people for 1 week are conceived by a group small cadre of LLC partners (now board members) and event organizers that are not elected nor anyway designated by the community.

    Furthermore, the volunteer bureaucracy that enforces said regulations (from DMV, to Rangers, to Gate/Perimeter, to Artery), while drawn from the community are approved for volunteership by established volunteer mentors who are themselves assigned/nominated to those positions by Org staff that are hired indirectly or directly by the same small cadre of event organizers and LLC (now board) members.

    I’m not criticizing this arrangement, but we certainly cannot pretend it is anything that resembles anarchy. There are rules. They are invented by the people in charge and they are enforced. The fact that said enforcement is with such a light touch lends some credence to the popular opinion that the BM Org is essentially a benevolent dictatorship and is not evidence of an anarchical system.

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  • gman says:

    Nice article Caveat. I think the movement implications of Burning Man are very real, but mostly as a cultural phenomenon that you seem to address towards the end. In the last 5-10 years we’ve certainly seen Burning Man become a cultural movement which has a global significance. Someone mentioned that 25% of the population of Black Rock City are non US residents. About 10% are Europeans. The activities of the Burning Man Project and the global network of regional events and activities bear out the transnational trajectory of Burning Man. Black Rock City is more than an event that occurs in the Black Rock Desert every August, there is a worldwide diaspora of burners who are inspired and translating its principles into their own countries, regions and lives, and they are doing this in ways that you, me or any other single individual cannot possess absolute oversight of, and more importantly they are adapting and adopting the experience in ways that make controlling it and bottling it insurmountable challenges for government agencies and corporate entities.

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  • Mazzio Hooch says:

    Ich bein ein Jelly Donut! Hurrah! Hurrah! There’s something left that’s not political!

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  • Tam Hunt says:

    For some strange reason, my post yesterday was removed. I’m hoping this one isn’t. My point was that Burning Man is very much a political movement insofar as it demonstrates what is possible in terms of creativity, administration and energy without much at all in the way of central planning. This is a fine example of crowdsourcing government through the “wisdom of the mob.” More on this here: http://www.independent.com/news/2013/oct/09/wisdom-mob/

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  • puppymeat says:

    Nice essay, Caveat. Plenty of food for thought, so let me throw my scraps in, too.

    I’ve been burning every year since 1998, and I’ve seen the political nature of the event and the community change over the last fifteen years. My first year I was struck by how there was a vibrant mix of what I described as “aging hippies” and “2nd amendment gun nuts.” 1998, I learned later, was the first year that guns were banned on the playa, but the gun nuts were still there in force, channeling their efforts into pyromania instead (you couldn’t shoot bullets back then, but plenty of people were shooting their flare guns in the air–it was a different time.) I loved, loved, loved the fact that there was a place where left wingers and right wingers could party together, and everyone had a sort of ‘live and let live’ attitude. It was a great time to be alive.

    There was also a general irreverence towards politics. One of my favorite jokes was the multiple Bill Clinton lotion dispensers placed around the playa (you can guess where the lotion came out of.)

    For a few years, this general indifference/irreverence towards politics dominated my experience there. On 9/11, when for a brief time we were all united (remember that? It seems so quaint today) it reminded me of Burning Man and how so many different kinds of people pulled together to survive and thrive in the harshest of environments.

    Then 2004 happened. For some context, I hate election years. I have my political opinions, I have my dog in the race, and I do what I can to support my candidates. But I get really tired of the nonstop political coverage. So on the playa I just wanted one simple week where I could avoid it. Instead I found people running voter registration drives. Some of them just wanted to register voters, but most of them clearly wanted to register Kerry voters. This pissed me off enough that I started yelling at them that you can cause more change in the world by knocking down a couple of buildings than by voting. 9/11 was much fresher in the mind back then, and I was specifically doing that to shock them. But I was careful to always talk about “changing” the world, not “improving” it.

    Since 2007 (at least, I’m not sure exactly what year we started,) I’ve been running the Self-Service Abortion Clinic. The original joke was we’d just give out free wire coat hangers. Then I found these little plastic fetuses that are used as pro-life teaching/propaganda (depending on your political inclination) tools, and discovered I could use a syringe to fill them with red jello vodka shots. That turned our clinic pretty fuckin’ awesome, if I do say so myself.

    But to get back to the point, an unintended consequence that amuses me greatly is that people would try to find some political meaning in our camp. It was just meant as shocking, offensive humor, but roughly equal numbers assume we have either a pro-life or pro-choice agenda we’re pushing. In moments of self-examination, I realize that if there is a point to my camp (and it’s more likely there isn’t) it’s to recapture that spirit of political irreverence I remembered from 1998-2000. Whatever your opinion on this heated issue, I will assert my right to mock it.

    A final thought: I think a strong reason more people see BM as a political movement is because for better or worse (hint: the correct answer is “worse”) it has become more politically homogenous over the years. While it may be true that “You’re no more or less a Burner if you voted Democrat or Republican, Green or Libertarian,” there are a heck of a lot more Democrats and Greens than Republicans. And while everyone is welcome, liberals are a hell of a lot more welcome than conservatives.

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  • Dr.Realz says:

    I would ague that burning man is a not a political movement but a social paradigm shift. The new world order … yea I said it. A world where art, spiritually and technology rule the day. Burning man removes stress about money, acceptance, food, shelter ect… your only concern is enriching your soul. Technology makes our lives easier and easier but as technology replace workers blue collar jobs are fewer and fewer. The world I fear is one of stratification, one where the person of perceived status is only a form of entertainment for the person born into wealth. Decommodification is the way out allowing a person’s basic needs to be meet in order to focus on expanding personal “gifts” that then can be shared freely, as opposed to the exploitation and control of the human spirit. Burning man much like technology has opened another level of consciousness a man made world, the collective conscious of the internet as well as the burning man experience, expressing collective human thought as a whole. Breaking down the barriers that the corporations, church’s and state created we realize we are not alone. The anonymity removes fear, the nonstructural mass removes guilt and in so doing topples tyrants and exposes those who wish to exploit the human spirit.

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  • Dragon Pilot says:

    Liberalism, conservatism or anything in between by themselves are not inherently political. Democrats are not always purely liberal, and Republicans are not always purely conservative. It’s the political institutions that make them so. That said, I find elements of liberalism and conservatism hard at work at Burning Man and its Regionals. Take a look at the 10 Principles. I would hardly expect to find Radical Self Reliance as a plank in the Democrats’ platform…ever hear of Federal and State Entitlement Programs, aka Welfare…I find this to be more of a conservative, apolitical value? Radical inclusion? Perhaps leaning more in the liberal direction, or a blend of both notions? Look at the other principles and associate them with your own political philosophy. Bottom line, I agree with CM.

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  • l says:

    ‘Course… believing that radical self-reliance is an actual experience most people will ever have is delusional. You don’t depend on yourself to put on your socks in the morning at Burning Man, you depend on the person who made those socks. And on the global economic system through which those socks were obtained. And if your friend made your socks, they depend on the people who procured the material to make them, and the systems that got that material to them.

    I agree with the idea that Burning Man is not some perfect world we need to plaster over this one. Also, if there is a “Zone”, then the Zone lives firmly in society. We don’t escape it – we can’t.

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  • Drew says:

    We live in an era where the only power the average citizen perceives he has is buying power. I don’t like you so you don’t get my money. Ah but you can have some because we agree. This is a sad state of reality. Pathetic, really!
    Burning man is certainly not a political movement for all the reasons enumerated in your essay. It is however a place where politically minded people can go to learn that life is not about money or power or health insurance. What I’ve learned through my experience in this movement is that we all have the capacity to love unconditionally. I love you for being you.

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  • Dragon Pilot says:

    Radical Self-Reliance to me, in terms of this event, and that’s what we’re discussing, means I, as an individual, will do what I need to do in basic preparation for attending the event without depending on others AT the event. It allows me to ask for assistance here and there, but not to attend the event with the expectation that “the universe will provide.”

    That’s what it means to me. Someone else’s experience may be different. Some may take the approach that resourceful begging/sponging fits the definition…and everything in between.

    One may argue that one is not able to practice Radical Self-Reliance unless one is able to grow the cotton, process it, and spin the thread with which to darn the socks. That, BTW, is certainly true in some parts of the world, and may be one’s way of preparing for this event or living in the real world. For this event “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” That is not political.

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  • G says:

    straying a bit off topic here . . . .
    Buying power, yes. Then there is voting power. Seriously I was beginning to feel recently that elections were not so relevant. 2012 changed that in my mind with two realizations. First, realizing how much money is spent in the attempt to sway elections means that indeed they do have consequences. 2010 Congressional election is affecting us to this day. The other event that changed my mind was that we here in Colorado and those in Washington voted to do something no political animal in office had the balls to do, legalize cannabis.
    Damn I wish Nevada would follow suit and the Feds (cough BLM cough) would ignore it. It would make Burning Man much mellower on several levels.

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  • Tam Hunt says:

    Dude? Seriously? You’re blocking my entirely on-point posts here. I can’t think of a move more antithetical to Burning Man. Well, maybe some, but this is high up there. Crazy. Email me an explanation por favor.

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  • Jeremiah Kaylor says:

    Hi, My name is Jeremiah and I have been researching this very topic for three years, I will be giving a presentation on Wednesday and Friday October 23 and 25th from 7-9 pm at [freespace] 1131 Mission Street San Francisco, CA 94103 United States https://www.facebook.com/events/642298362468979/

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  • Simon of the Playa says:

    Its a dictatorship.

    As it should be.

    Politics are a moot point, now sit down, shut up, and acknowledge the fact that every year, EVERY YEAR, while the man is burning, he raises his one arm in a salute to Mein Larry.

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