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.
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