Your Political Agenda Is as Boring as It Is Irrelevant

(AUTHOR’S NOTE:  I would rather be writing about theme camps.  I would rather be writing about the Midway.  But in classic Burning Man fashion, my ride is over 30 hours late … you know who you are … and so I’m writing about a magazine piece that annoyed me.  Hey, I’ve gotta keep busy, you know?  I’ll see you out there.  One way or another I’ll see you out there.)

Here’s a good rule of thumb: anytime someone tries writing a dry, humorless, assessment of people having fun, they will end up with an essay that is dry, humorless, and forgettable.

Knowing that, I’d like to make a few observations inspired by Jacobin’s essay on how Burning Man has betrayed us all by failing to be a socialist paradise, while there is still a chance that someone will remember having read it.

There’s a great deal of refutation and correction that I could offer to the piece – from its statement that “Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression.” (No, in fact there are 10 Principles, none of which are identified as superior to the others) to its assessment that a few theme camps run by rich people are fundamentally altering the experience of Burning Man (“Caravansicle” is a well established debacle, but almost nobody actually noticed it was happening at Burning Man itself: which is to say that it actually had no impact on most people’s experience.  In fact, aside from Caravansicle I challenge any Burner to think of a memorable theme camp run by the 1% – while I know that anyone who’s attended can think of dozens of experiences they had with camps organized by volunteers and n’er do wells, the people who have always made Burning Man what it is). But such refutation would be an exercise in defensiveness applied to pointlessness.

Because the central argument of Jacobin’s Burning Man piece has nothing to do with Burning Man specifically: rather, it is the implicit argument that the only “legitimate” experience a person can have is one which is in alignment with “correct” politics.

The piece, after all, gives absolutely no consideration to Burning Man as a lived experience, as a generator of art, or a source of fun. It does not consider Burning Man’s philosophy on its own terms, or what actual Burners get out of the experience. Instead, its sole focus is to condemn Burning Man because (based on estimates) just under 3% of Burners make over $300,000 annually.

Ironically, a piece championing the needs of the 99% utterly ignores their experiences of Burning Man, because we don’t count.  Zuckerberg, Tananbaum, Page, and other gazillionaires are all name-checked, but no Burners who aren’t gazillionaires are named, let alone quoted or talked to. Far from being independent actors with our own reasons for going to Burning Man, we are an undifferentiated mass of not-rich-people who may be building, running, and living in Black Rock City, but whose motives and experiences aren’t worth considering.

Thanks, champion of the people!

Such reductions are the work of those who see art as nothing but agitprop and whimsy as a distraction from the Very Important Work that must be done. And to be sure there is Very Important Work that must be done. Certainly. No argument here.

But not everything is reducible to it. Burning Man is a living testament (the kind of testament that matters most) that not everything good in the world is reducible to politics. On the contrary: the experience of Burning Man is one which explicitly creates an experience of life outside of politics, and people keep coming back because that has profound value.

Burning Man is hardly unique in this. After all, if art is only legitimate based on the correctness of its political content, then we don’t really need the art at all: just a pamphlet laying out the bullet points. If whimsy is only legitimate as an act of political protest, then, there is only propaganda. And what about those other principles – besides radical self-expression – that the Jacobin piece largely ignores? Communal Effort? Participation? Gifting? Are we really to believe that these are only valuable to the extent they are done by people with the correct politics, in the politically correct way?

Burning Man absolutely does not stand for any particular political program precisely because those things it does stand for place the lived human experience over political theory. That a political rag written by political hacks has missed that point is as sad as it is unsurprising:   it happens all the time.  Socialists, neoconservatives, libertarians, progressives, tea partiers – all of them have found that Burning Man does not share their politics. An event which privileges the lived human experience over the boxes in which political theory tries to place people will never have correct politics, no matter what side they’re coming from.  But it has something to offer them as human beings. This is, in fact, a key element of Radical Inclusion: you don’t have to change your politics to be a burner.

Those who only see the world in political terms will see no value in that. Will, in fact, accuse us of being naïve and standing the way of the Very Important Work. They are certainly entitled to their opinion. For myself, I think the fact that most of us don’t want to live in a world where everything we do has to be measured against its political impact – where values like inclusion, self-expression, participation, immediacy, and self-reliance, can’t transcend the limitations of politics – is emblematic of what’s best about us. Jacobin may be trying to speak for the masses, but I don’t think they actually want to live in Jacobin’s world. I think they’d rather live in Burning Man’s, rich and poor alike. For good reason.  A world entirely defined by politics is dry, humorless, and forgettable … to the extent it’s not the stuff of nightmares.

Photo by Duncan Rawlinson

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

14 Comments on “Your Political Agenda Is as Boring as It Is Irrelevant

  • I have not read the article you are on about, but it certainly made you angry, sadface.
    Best to do is dive into the real experience and prove they are wrong.
    You lot (all 70,000) manage each year to create a society sending reverberations all over the world.

    Can you say ‘Hi’ to the NightHoover for us?

    Report comment

  • Hermanaa Headly says:

    It appears the authors of both pieces (this one and the one alluded to) needs to drink some water.

    Report comment

  • Chaps says:

    Excellent refutation! Jacobin’s piece was bunk! BM has been happening for almost 30 years now and he seemed to imply that the festival and community is only relevant or important on the global stage now because some really rich fucks are into it and it’s now on the glitterati party circuit?! We don’t need those folks or their money to make BRC what it is. Never have, never will!

    Report comment

  • Alice says:

    I read Jacobin’s article and it pissed me off too, for the same reasons. But this is what I figure: You don’t get a lot of hate until you’re big enough to be making some waves, and then it’s going to come no matter what you do. I’m assuming that since Big Media discovered Burning Man a few years back, we’re going to have the same bipolar treatment from them that they give any large entity that’s the least bit culturally controversial. The response, I guess, should be some combination of “don’t read the comments” and nonspecifically getting a consistent message out there about what we *really* do. That said, when a friend posted the Jacobin piece, I couldn’t bring myself to ignore it, because it really was so off the mark. When I posted a short refutation she appreciated my insight, so there’s that.

    Report comment

  • The Grue says:

    I wrote about the Jacobin article as well, though kind of obliquely. I did this on Facebook, because that’s where my people are. You can read it, if you want.

    Your article has me thinking differently than I was, which is good, because my thinking was in a pretty dark place last night.

    Report comment

  • Chuck says:

    There’s nothing wrong with the Jacobin piece, it’s what many of us have thought for a long time particularly since the Borg split up a long time community in their quest for money and influence.

    CM get a little thicker skin. You’re about as credible as a presidential spokesman spewing half truths and lies. BM will change and save the world, everything is good, and on and on. It sounds like you’re trying to become the high priest of a new religion.

    The real crime of Jacobin? Criticizing an increasingly meaningless event-one where too many of the attendees egos are wrapped up in believing they are doing something significant.

    Report comment

    • Caveat Magister says:


      There are plenty of concerns worth having about Burning Man: the Jacobin piece just doesn’t address them. An insightful critique of Burning Man is wholly legitimate, and I not only welcome one but try to write them occasionally.

      I am steadfast in my belief that Burning Man can change the world. But that is “can” as in “could possibly,” not as “will definitely.” I have explicitly written before (in a piece called “Could Burning Man be one more failed social experiment? Oh hell yes” for example) that Burning Man’s success is not assured, and that if Burning Man isn’t careful it could be remembered as a successful boutique art/lifestyle movement rather than the beginning of a culture shift.

      Which is to say that there’s a lot at stake, and a lot that could go wrong, and a lot worth talking about. Nor is the Org infallible. Not by a long-shot.

      But the Org being fallible doesn’t mean Jacobin is right. The essence of its argument – that Burning Man has to have a political message at its heart in order to be legitimate – is flat out wrong. Burning Man may fail, but not for that reason. In fact, I think that’s one of the things it’s done very right.

      If you’re angry at Burning Man for “splitting up a long time community” (I’m assuming based on their ticket sale policies?) I’m happy to have that discussion. But that has nothing to do with Jacobin’s argument. Even if you’re right, they’re still wrong.

      Report comment

  • wayneco says:

    Here is the article that was being referenced:

    “Why the Rich Love Burning Man” by by Keith A. Spencer
    “Keith A. Spencer is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is a freelance writer and retired Burner.”

    The title is certainly link-bait, rooted in the tired class-war rhetoric that gives many in the SF bay area a warm and fuzzy feeling. He’s seems angry that techies have a strong presence at the event. In the 21 years I have been attending the event, it has always had a strong tech industry presence, this is nothing new. So the very existence, of a few successful techies at the event causes him to blow his stack, likely in the same vein of envy of his earlier tired class war rhetoric in the title.

    They have seemingly have ruined his burning man by simply daring to exist.

    Hey buddy, if you don’t like something, look the other direction. Like all leftist-authoritarians, he believes his idea of a society is the only one that should be allowed. That is radical, but not radically free, rather radically un-free in a way only the radical left can envision and dictate.

    If he’s going to be this jealous of the successful coming to and contributing to burning man, it’s probably best that he’s now a “retired burner” and I might suggest he pursue a degree program that might allow him to add more value to the world than he can as the heckler he appears to be now.

    Report comment

  • Chaps says:

    Well put CM! BM and BMorg do have many flaws and the event is evolving in ways that many old timers don’t appreciate. I for one have stopped attending for various reasons. BM has become so large and complex that it defies easy labels. It means a lot of different things to different people. I think it’s attracting a lot of attention and criticism because in some ways it is holding up a mirror to our society warts and all (albeit a distorted fun house mirror!) but that’s what makes it so interesting. Burners are as guilty as anyone as maybe taking the whole thing to seriously. It’s far more than just a big drug fueled party in the desert (something that people who have never attended love to repeat endlessly) and it carries many idealistic seeds that could carry its influence far. But I think BM much more a reflection than a cause of where our crazy world is headed. But it definitely has more an end of an era (end of the world??) feeling to it rather than anything truly sustainable. Anyhow my beef with Jacobin is that he tries too hard to put this political spin on the community that just doesn’t represent it’s grassroots. Anytime you focus on a small slice of something it leads to distortions. But I agree in part with Chuck that BM’s biggest danger is in merely becoming an iterative parody of itself and not some vanguard of a libertarian shock doctrine. But in the end BM will become whatever its participants collectively decide to make of it regardless of what the BMorg decides.

    Report comment

  • KellY says:

    The article raises a lot of salient points – not surprising that Caveat doesn’t want to acknowledge them, considering his opinions he expressed last year about the Billionaire Row camps and his contempt for those who had objections to the situation. No, I don’t agree with everything in it, but it’s got a lot of on the mark observations, especially the event’s connections to Situationalist ideas and the evolution away from that.

    And once again, when claiming that the Turnkey camp folks never hurt anyone ele’s experience, CM of course neglects to mention all the folks who didn’t get tickets because they went to the exclusive guests or the hired help of these camps. Guess they don’t count, huh?

    Since CM doesn’t seem to provide a link to the article – don’t want people judging for themselves, perhaps? – here’s one:

    Report comment

  • Tmd says:

    I don’t know a lot about BM except from what I’ve seen and read. I read the Jacobin piece and enjoyed it. I appreciate your opposing POV. And for the first time in a long time, my eyes didn’t bleed when I read the comments. Thanks all.

    Report comment

  • Raven says:

    The article actually had very little to do with Burning Man, and your reading comprehension of it was pretty low. It was about global wealth inequality, and the way that Burning Man’s demographics relate to that. Open your eyes. This wasn’t attacking you, it was attacking the rich people who are destroying the planet and exploiting people like you. By defending it/them you’re playing into the plutocratic rule of our minds and bodies.

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.