Burning Man’s Relationship to Politics in a Time of Activism

Let’s not kid ourselves. You love Burning Man, but lately you’ve been asking yourself: “Is this important?”

“In a world that’s being destroyed by (INSERT WHOEVER THOSE PEOPLE ARE), does any of this really matter?”

And if it does – here’s where it gets really tricky – what exactly does it do that makes it relevant? After all, it’s still inviting (INSERT THOSE PEOPLE), and not demanding that they be educated about (INSERT THE THING THAT THOSE PEOPLE NEED TO STOP AND/OR START DOING). It’s not even shaming them! So how can it matter?

It’s a fair question because not every organization or culture that sees itself as fundamentally apolitical can still be relevant in a time of political crisis. I am going to make the argument that Burning Man is, in fact, not only relevant but vitally important in our current time. But first we need to admit, right up front and very clearly, is that Burning Man cannot be all things to all people. And honestly it can’t even be all of the things to some of the people.

If you’re asking “why doesn’t Burning Man take a stand on that, and that, and that, and that …” you’re in the wrong place. An attempt to have a position on all the issues of the moment will turn Burning Man into a political party, rather than a culture with soul and purpose. It is in pursuing that purpose, rather than in trying to respond to the issue of the day, that Burning Man is at its most relevant.

Part of that purpose has always been to inspire people to become active participants and citizens, rather than passive spectators – and it does this year after year. After each Burning Man event, new people are inspired to engage in activist efforts based on their own passions, not someone else’s (certainly not ours).  Burning Man may be the most effective master class in social transformation anywhere in the world – but this is possible precisely because we don’t tell people what to believe. Creating the conditions whereby people can learn to become active participants in their lives begins with not giving them orders to follow.

People who have become active participants in their own lives are more likely to become activists –and more likely to be good at it. The more they practice, the better they’ll probably be. If you’ve ever wondered:  “why don’t all those sheeple just WAKE UP and see what’s happening and DO SOMETHING!” … well, that’s what happens here. And honestly our “do-occracy” approach, where people decide what matters to them and how to get active, is much, much more effective than any thousand lectures, memes, or screeds.

It’s just that, at the end of the process (to the extent it ever ends), people get to decide for themselves what’s important to them and whether they agree with you about it. And … shouldn’t they?

But more basically, Burning Man is apolitical not because it thinks politics are unimportant (I don’t know that I’ve ever met a Burner who thinks that), but because it believes that politics are not – and should not be – the highest value of a community. Healthy communities do not have as their highest aspiration the struggle for political power (who wants to live in THAT community? Not even Machiavelli), but on shared values and mutual respect. On Radical Inclusion, on Communal Effort, on Radical Self-Expression, on Gifting … you get the idea.  We’ve got 10 of them. You, personally, may have others. (Which is not only fine, it’s the point.)

This is not a trivial thing, because whatever your politics are, it’s very clear that things are so bad right now in part because our ability to create healthy communities has broken down.

No one, no matter what their politics, is happy with the communities they have:  the American President’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a roar of discontent. His supporters are not saying “we’re happy with the way things are,” but that something has to be done to make the places they live safe, prosperous, and whole. Meanwhile liberal enclaves are strangled by income inequality, soaring housing costs, segregation, and fear that automation is creating an economy unsuitable for actual people.

Our political polarization surely makes clear – we no longer know how to relate to one another.  Surely, at this moment, experiments in inclusive and healthy communities serve an essential purpose.

Whoever “wins” the political crisis we’re in, there is going to be a desperate need for new approaches to creating communities that welcome new people and enable everyone to thrive.  The only way we get past this crisis, instead of just falling into another crisis, is to figure out how such communities can be built and then doing it.

Black Rock City has been a long-running experiment in how such communities are put together.  Every regional group is a test case. Every Burning Man affiliated community, every community that is inspired by Burning Man, or adopts its principles or terminology, is a beta test (or, okay, maybe an alpha test) in how we do this.

Burning Man will probably not be the only model for the better communities to follow. That’s fine. But the collected experience of participants, the development of new models and collective expertise, is vital to that process – and few places on Earth are doing it at the scale, or with the degree of innovation, of Burning Man.

That can’t be the only priority anyone has right now, but there will come a time – perhaps soon – when the world we want to build will rise or fall on how well we have learned the lessons of inclusive community building and whimsical communal effort that Burning Man is engaged with, every day and around the world.

That matters, and your engagement with it matters too.


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’s Relationship to Politics in a Time of Activism

  • Playa Nai`a says:

    Thanx! Your appreciation is greatly appreciated.

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    • Ty Eckley says:

      Thank you for building this nice, tidy, little “middle-ground” from which to view the gut-wrenching world around us. Pointing out that ACTING ON OUR PRINCIPLES is the path to lowering our personal angst while also creating a wave of safety and fairness — is a welcome and timely message. Nice work.

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  • The Hustler says:

    In one way the present political climate not only here, but elsewhere, is a learning experience — albeit a costly one — where future generations can look back and either suggest this is a time when the problems of the post WW2 era (and probably all of humanity) meshed together and …
    OK, this is where I have two divergent thoughts:
    1. They got their shit together, learned valuable lessons (like community building, communication, inclusiveness, creativity and humor) and made changes for the better.

    2. They ignored history, ignored the glaring problems, refused to communicate, refused to work together, stuck to their cruel and violent ideologies; and … well, the world will be a different place, and all of this will be forgotten to time and/or just one more empire that failed to heed its own dire warnings.

    Burning Man is important, but in a complex way, I believe. The community and societal framework is crucial to building organic and sustainable communities. I mean: a thriving community can’t be simply manufactured, it takes a long time and a bit of struggle and common interests.

    The party aspect of Burning Man (the 15% of the event that gets 99% of media coverage for the entire community) is good in that we must make sure we, as humans, never forget to have fun and maybe not take everything so damn seriously. That and fire-spewing penis art cars are hilarious.

    And there is the more abstract areas of the Burning Man community and ethos: the non-commercial, no-advertising aspect (in Black Rock City, anyway) and the “do-ocracy” element. It’s the making of good neighbors. We may not like each other, or each other’s art or politics, but we respect each other. We help each other out of jams (not the surf shorts from the 1980s … well, maybe, but that’s another blog, which has nothing to do with Orgy Dome) and share a laugh about it later, if applicable.

    Taking the possibility of generating personal wealth out of the equation AND being part of a community with similar (and simultaneously wildly different) philosophies and reasons seems to work curiously well. And if it doesn’t work, we fix it and/or make good/bad art about it.

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  • Liz Estrada says:


    i’ve already started making my shitgibbon furry costume.

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  • Audspace says:

    Well said! Respect Learn Evolve Grow

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  • B says:

    Schomberg’s word art pieces have always been positive. But maybe this year’s will be “LIES”.

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  • Hernan Cortes says:

    Love the last few paragraphs, Burners unite!

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  • Peace says:

    Umm..is the picture of the man above an alternative? I like it better than the current design.

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  • dick says:

    don’t break your wrists jerking yourself off over how you figured out how to fix society

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  • The Dude says:

    As a burner that probably is a ‘minority’ politically speaking, I love my burner family…the outside of the box thinking, the love of life, art, music, dancing and sexuality. We live free. We get along and love each other. I agree, Burning Man is the greatest experiment of utopia I have seen. I am a better citizen because of it.

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  • Timeless says:

    Good stuff Caveat, but I beat you too it a decade ago.

    For Green Man I brought a 10′, still being carved Statue of Liberty to the playa. My installation was called America Empowering the World…Again. I think that last word screwed me because before I could finish the chainsaw carving, an arsonist, with help from a big can of gasoline had set the whole shit’n thing a blaze, melting my trailer, scaffolding and tools with it. WTF!!! (Same year as the arson attack on The Man, one private I told me it was the same group of losers). Bummer until Burners rallied on playa and off, helping me clean up the mess and get my remaining art woks home — even raising almost $5K to replace my equipment!

    In response, to such kindness, I came back the following year, “American Dream” with a 30′ Statue of Liberty, contemporized, with no political message other than Liberty (Burners call it freedom and it’s the only reason our city still stands.) We stood her up, erected scaffolding and I started chainsawing again, just where I’d left off before the fire ha ha! Take that punks.

    To that monument I have by now added half dozen more, each year bringing something new to BRC, each one is about the same word: Liberty. I haul the damn things around to Decomps and other events year-round. Right now the whole collection is on a DG beach at a posh Tahoe resort. This traveling circus is titled Liberty (R)evolution. Click my name for the whole story but wait! Don’t shoot me, I’m not a Republican or a Democrat … Libertarian. I thought I’d make buddies on both sides and I have, but I’ve taken shit from both sides too :(

    Fuck’em all. This year I stand a 30 foot version of The Man, our man, right in front of the Temple, arms up, engulfed in carved flames. He’s carved out of a twin Cypress, unearthed tree stump, roots up. I’ll bore down into those roots with real fire, in my weird, backwards Fire Inside burn technique to create what I call “Liberty Torch”. He’ll survive the playa, soon coming to a community near you.

    Art frees and builds communities, folks and that’s what this Renaissance we’re sparking is all about — not (Insert your least favorite party here…) politics!

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  • Peckster says:

    Sounds to me like he supports Make America great again. Any thoughts on the travel bans, or political changes that might make Burning Man impossible?

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  • History Buff says:

    Thanks for this reminder Caveat. This (unwritten) principle of Burning Man has a long history… it was included on the founding manifesto of “Rough Draft” the Cacophony Society’s newsletter (the group that brought Burning Man from the San Francisco beach to the desert in 1990.) https://archive.org/details/roughdraftoffici1171vari
    You can see, on page one, point #3. “We ask that no organized religious or political groups use ROUGH DRAFT to spread their fetishes and obsessions. We’re not here to propagandize people.” The group’s motto was, in part, “you may already be a member” and this inclusive attitude was made possible by not taking sides in social debate. The point was to do the opposite… to jack up society in a creative way. This was 1986, and they realized that creative play and culture jamming was essential for EVERYONE to clear out the demons in their heads. We owe the continued existence of Burning Man- in large part- to this idea.

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  • Ethan Hoverman says:

    Everyu time I read a new article or watch a new video, I feel more like I am preparing to finally come home to a family who really loves each other and understands what it means to live together and accept one another through our differences. I cannot tell you how excited I am to come home Eta 2018, and going to Ky regional this year if I can.

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  • Cruiser says:

    Caveat this is beautifully written. Our greater “community” is broken, leading to much of what we see today in this unrest. Thanks for taking the time to put this thoughtfully together.

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  • Sofonda Weiners says:

    Ooohhh. This is great!
    I am interested in having tangible examples of the models for creating inclusive healthy communities..’blueprints’ …a manual of suggestions and best practices, not rules per se, guidelines, a starting point, recipes for success
    A working definition of do-ocracy
    I’m VERY curious about the cultural studies curriculum

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