I've been to Burning Man four times, in '05-'07 and '09. This year will be my fifth trip, and quite possibly my last.

Perhaps such a statement strikes you as unexpected. After all, aren't I championing the greater culture of Burning Man as a force for creative problem-solving during the political crisis I see developing even as I write this? A seed out of which will grow a reformed society?

I fervently hope so. During the week the festival is on, Black Rock City likely has the highest-density population of creative, resourceful, iconoclastic people anywhere in the world. Creating a thriving city in the barren wasteland that is the Black Rock Desert takes extreme creativity, intelligent planning, and a resilience in the face of hardship that you won't find in such concentration in any other city in the world.

But Burning Man is no utopia. It's often spoken of in those terms, but it's intellectually and perceptually lazy to do so. Burning Man is rife with some very harsh contradictions: Burning Man is often seen as a celebration of freedom, even anarchy, but it is run by a centralized organization that need answer to no one--and frequently doesn't. That organization, Burning Man, LLC, (often known within Burner culture as "BMorg" or even "the Borg") is a for-profit corporation whose only income is the ticket sales for entry into the event, yet depends on thousands of person-hours of volunteer labor for the event to happen at all.

More? Burning Man culture extols anti-commercialism, to the extent that BMorg ostensibly bans commerce on the playa--but then undermines the "gift economy" it wants to create by running a cash cafe in Center Camp. Burning Man bills itself as an arts festival, but it discriminates fiercely on what sort of arts it champions--visual artists can apply for grants to get their work out to the playa, but the big sound camps that dominate the nightlife get no such assistance. Burning Man claims to want to foment creativity, but then puts layers of bureaucracy in the way of that creativity--for many creative acts, you need permission.

As I noted in my first post, my experiences at Burning Man have been broadly transformative within my life. But as the years have gone on, the contradictions at the heart of the experience have come more and more troublingly to the fore. To put it succinctly: most of what is wonderful, ebullient, life-changing, etc., about the event comes from the Burners themselves, the wonderful, creative people who devote vast parts of themselves into creating the most vibrant city in the world. Most of what is aggravating, disenchanting, hard-to-navigate, frustrating, etc., about the event comes from BMorg itself or from the volunteers who most willingly do its bidding. Not to say that what BMorg and said volunteers do hasn't been valuable--the event would have long ago ceased to be without their efforts--but on a fundamental level I believe that BMorg radically, narcissistically overvalues itself and undervalues the community that supports it, and it may be that I can no longer directly support, with great blocks of my time (not to mention substantial amounts of money), an organization that treats me and others in such a manner. Perhaps I'll have such a great time this year that I'll be in a big hurry to go back--we'll see. But right now, I'm pretty disillusioned.

Nevertheless, I will continue to be an ambassador for the greater culture that Burning Man has spawned, and will continue to follow the hypothesis that Burning Man culture can ultimately be the breeding ground for the solutions to the political problems that even now are disintegrating the bonds that hold our society together.


Let's start here: I first attended Burning Man in 2005. Among the many changes it engendered in my life, the most important for our purposes here was in my understanding of our day-to-day society (what Burners like to call "Default Life").

A society and the rules under which it operates create a sort of synergistic feedback loop. That is, the society develops governing structures, which then alter the structure of the society, which then alters its governance, which further changes the society, and so on. It's a chicken/egg evolutionary spiral.

Laws and norms are human-made. They can be created, changed, discarded. Therefore, when talking about society, I never believe "that's just the way things are." That's the way things currently are. Anything human-made can be remade.

Why does all this matter? It informs this hypothesis: the vast entrenchment of power in our society, the corruption caused by the self-serving wielding of that power, the betrayal of the non-upper classes for the greater enrichment of the already wealthy, the deification of finance, and the combination of the fascistic drive toward a homogenized social order built on fear and the hypocrisy of those leading that drive have us poised on the precipice of a monumental political crisis and, in response, a commensurate countercultural uprising.

The revolution is coming. Like feudalism before it, capitalism, along with the social/political structures that support it, is dying. No need to mourn: it had its time. Now it's time for something new.

And how does all this relate to Burning Man? Here by "Burning Man" I mean the emergent society that erupts when 50,000 creative people descend on Nevada's Black Rock Desert for a week, build the most dynamic city on Earth, and tear it down again. That Burning ManĀ  operates quite literally by a different set of rules--and far, far more so than the event's central organizers even intend.

If you're looking for something and someone to guide this coming revolution, look to the successful revolutionary society that already exists, and to the people who made it that way.