The Principles of Burning Man

In my quest to find the right balance between the emotional security provided by tight knit family networks, and the freedom enabled by modern individualism, I think it is useful to consider different things people have already tried. My post on Kibbutzim can be considered in this light.

My cousin Rodney suggests that I consider the principles of the Burning Man community. Here they are listed on their own website:

So what I want to do is consider them one-by-one in light of how they fit into the struggle between tribalism and universalism. I will use the ❤️ icon to represent what I consider conservative, tribal ideals and the 💡 icon to represent what I consider progressive, universalist principles. Obviously this is a bit of an oversimplification, but sometimes there is value in at least trying to implement a binary classification.

Radical Inclusion 💡

This one is easy. Especially since they give us a bit clue with the word ‘radical’ that they don’t mean anything conservative by it. In any case, a conservative culture is all about knowing your in-group, and by extension, your out-group. Universal principles, on the other hand, can be extended to anyone and everyone.

Gifting ❤️

This is a pretty traditional, well, tradition among tribal cultures. For example, something like Hospitality is the first principle of Pashtunwali. Of course, in tribal cultures this principle is applied to visitors, and in order to be a visitor, someone must somehow be a stranger.

Decommodification ❤️

I’m going with conservative on this one, too. Commodification is a modern principle that allows us to engage with strangers. Decommodification is one way to enforce more complex transactions among people with more complex relationships. It means we need to know and trust those we deal with. These kinds of transactions are more common in kinship-based cultures where we have long term relationships with those we deal with. There is some tension between this one and radical inclusion. Trying to decommodify our relationships with everyone is hard, if not impossible because our brain can only handle so many relationships. But it is possible in an environment like Burning Man where our interactions are somewhat limited (i.e., they are immediate and physical) and mostly with people who share somewhat similar values (i.e., the ones we are talking about here).

Radical Self-reliance 💡

Again, there is a clue here in the word ‘radical.’ Although, whenever I hear that my mind thinks “The lady doth protest too much.” In other words, if it was really radical, would we need to say its radical?

Plus, can self-reliance really be that progressive if the Mormons have a whole program dedicated to it? To conservatives, self-reliance mostly means something like not relying on government. But it can also mean not relying on friends and extended family (i.e., the clan). I am pretty torn, but I am going to have to respect the word ‘radical’ here. Also, when we take it at face value, self-reliance is a pretty modern, individualistic value.

Radical Self-expression 💡

Definitely a universalist value, even without the ‘radical’ modifier. There is no sense that the expression here needs to be influenced by what your family expects of you. We are clearly supposed to be individuals at Burning Man. Although, as I understand it, a lot of the radical self-expression happens in the context of collaborative groups who radically self-express in a mutually agreed upon fashion (e.g., to create group vehicles or art installations).

Communal Effort ❤️

Another tricky one. People often associate anything with leftism, which must be progressive. But in reality, communalism is ancient. specifically, it came before individualism. Attempts to engage in communal efforts with strangers, however, are not ancient. In the end, however, I have to classify the concept of communal effort as being more consistent with tribalism than with universalism/individualism.

Civic Responsibility ❤️

This is just getting harder and harder. On the one hand, law itself is kind of a universalist institution (as it replaces the more ancient informal customs). However, in describing this principle, it’s clear that the intent is to prevent people from getting too crazy: “Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.” That sounds a lot like a community using social pressure to keep each other in line. That is a deeply conservative principle.

Leaving No Trace ❤️

This one just means respect for the environment. It may confuse people when I say that this is a conservative principle because of how modern political parties line up. However, the whole concept of being able to change our environment is a product of modern, universalist, technological progress.

I think the main reason environmentalism is associated with progressive policy in the US is that the left wants to impose environmental regulation from the top down. But a local community that takes responsibility for its own environment counts as conservative in my book.

Participation 💡

How can ‘participation’ be conservative or progressive? Well, if we read the description we find that this isn’t just any kind of participation. They are talking about “ a radically participatory ethic”. Furthermore, the language they use just sounds really universalist: “Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play.”

The counter-argument here is that emphasizing physical activity is a conservative principle when compared to mental activity. Conservativism is a pragmatic, down-to-earth philosophy that values getting your hands dirty and I think there is a fair amount of that in play at Burning Man. But in the end, I will take their word that we aren’t talking about something radical here.

Immediacy 💡

Since I gave the ‘participation’ point to 💡, maybe I should give this one to ❤️as something of a Makeup Call. It’s not immediately obvious ‘immediacy’ means, but since it is “the most important touchstone of value in our culture” I should probably pay special attention.

The principle is described by stating “ We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.”

Overcoming barriers sounds like a progressive thing to do. Plus, the concept of “inner selves” seems pretty individualistic. Finally, “participation in society” seems like a pretty abstract, universal principle. When the say “those around us” I don’t think it is really supposed to be limited to kinship groups (or any kind of in-group), so I am going to have to stick with 💡 here.

Final Tally

💡: 5

❤️: 5

So it’s actually pretty close. So let’s go to tie breakers:

Which one is first? 💡

Which one is last? 💡

Which one do they say is most important? 💡

Since all the tie-breakers are progressive, I am going to have to say that Burning Man is, on average, a progressive community. Now, you might ask, couldn’t we have guessed that based on the fact that the whole thing is a drug-crazed orgy of sex and modern art? Yes, we probably could. But I am not really analyzing Burning Man itself. I am looking into its core principles.

Plus, I the fact that such a quintessential progressive community has a lot of conservative values should tell us something (even if some of the conservative values are a stretch, like Leaving No Trace).

My sense is that many progressives are deeply aware that modern society is missing something. The march of progress leaves a void. Marx called it alienation. Conservatives, in their churches and families, don’t feel the void so keenly. But progressives yearn for some of that community.

Like me, they want to find ways to recreate the sense of belonging in a way consistent with the great expanse of their modern principles. Individualism is a core principle of liberal societies, but it is lonely. Universalism is too abstract to provide any comfort. We can’t really feel that sense of community if all we have is the distant community that includes all of humanity (and animals, and the earth, etc.)

Thus, they try to overcome the void with “decommodification”, “communal effort” and, most importantly, “immediacy”. And perhaps it kind of works, for a little bit. But I am convinced that the true power of kinship networks and other tight-knit communities depends necessarily on a principle that you don’t really find at Burning Man: commitment.

In a family or a religion you are committed. The relationships are few and long term. Sometimes you are so committed you don’t even have a choice. It is a heavy weight, but I don’t think you can secure true emotional security without “responsibility”. Somewhere, deep inside, our subconscious brain can distinguish between relationships that are going to be there when we need them most, and relationships that represent a brief but fascinating spark of opportunity. At least, we can when we aren’t infatuated. But that is another story.

For now I am just going to have to conclude that I am deeply sympathetic to what Burning Man is trying to do. I, too, want to recapture the magic of the clan, but in a modern context consistent with individual liberty. I just don’t think the formula written down here does the trick.

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