Questioning Burning Man

As part of a discussion among friends on Facebook about the relative merits of Burning Man, my friend Leo asked my to comment on these interesting video-critiques of the project. I wrote so much that it was basically a blog post so I decided to post it.

Here are the links to the videos:

Here is my response, as requested by Leo. To be clear, it’s a response to the very interesting arguments made in these videos. I haven’t been to Burning Man, I would like to go, and I don’t have an ultimate opinion about it.

Here it is anyway…

Well the first thing to say would be that broadly speaking I obviously agree and my whole adult life has been largely devoted to making and enacting similar critiques. My first book was a book about rave which finishes up with a pretty pessimistic conclusion about how the radical potential of rave was largely squandered or co-opted, and back in the day I was critical of Spiral Tribe for holding raves that you needed a car to get to – so never mind massive parties in the middle of the desert. My next book concluded with a critique of what I called ‘the activist imaginary’ which was precisely the kind of self-congratulatory mentality of people who mistake potent but purely symbolic public theatre (which most ‘direct action’ amounts to in recent years) for actual political action (which might actually, you know, change things). [as an aside, for the benefit of people like from other countries let’s be clear that the Anglo-American context is very different from, say, Spain, where people inspired by anarchist principles really do go and set up permanent radical settlements in the mountains or wherever quite often…nobody does that here…they just squat a building for a week and call it ‘direct action’ and it is annoying at times…only at times mind you…]. My last book has some explicit discussion of Burning Man with reference to these issues…so overall I’m entirely sympathetic to the guy and his arguments. But I also think there are some responses I would make from the point of view of someone who has been making similar arguments for decades.

The first point would be that you can’t expect projects like Burning Man to end up in any place other than where it now is, in the absence of a much wider political movement for them to connect to. Experimental spaces like Burning Man will end up being co-oped by capitalism if there isn’t some wider political movement to sustain them, inspire them, and inform them about how to do things differently. You can’t really blame Burning Man for the fact that that’s happened to it, if it has. Of course you could say that BM shouldn’t keep using the ‘radical’ rhetoric, but I think this maybe overlooks the point that the rhetoric probably does express a genuine intention at some point in the evolution of the project, and that BM is very far from being the only example of such rhetoric being misused. It’s an endemic feature of contemporary capitalism that it feeds of the radical creative energy of those who start off on its fringes or even explicitly opposed to it. That doesn’t mean that such co-option is inevitable (if one person responds to this by saying ‘it’s inevitable, it’s always like this, there’s nothing you can do’ then I will cry. Just stop and think before reproducing that kind of fatalist, ahistorical claptrap). But it does mean that avoiding it is very difficult and largely depends upon external factors. We colud just as well say that it’s the fault of the mainstream American Left for not having any real engagement with radical culture since the 70s (the situation is far worse in the UK, where the leadership of the Labour movement has been actively hostile to radical cultural expression since the end of the 60s).

The distinction between liberal and radical is important and valuable and I think the guy is obviously right that many many people these days fall into the trap of believing that there is still something ‘radical’ about personal self-expression, when there just isn’t. That’s not to say that personal self-expression isn’t important. It’s just that the form of capitalism that we inhabit today is all about encouraging, facilitating and rewarding personal self-expression. That’s how you manage to sell 300,000 different kinds of t-shirt to people instead of just 30. What contemporary capitalism really has a problem with is any form of collective action or genuinely shared experience.

But here is where they guy’s argument gets a little shaky for me. I’m not convinced that a lot of burners don’t genuinely experience a degree of collective empowerment as well as just the chance to show off and express their individuality. It might be very limited in scope but it’s better than nothing. This is where I think that critiques like this often fall down. It seems to me that for a lot of burners BM is basically a kind of group therapy exercise. No, it doesn’t challenge the power structures which produce the problems that people experience, and yes it would be better to have a political and cultural movement which really did that, but in the absence of such a movement, it’s better having them prance around in the desert than than having them all self-lobotomise with prescription antidepressants. This was what I always said about Climate Camp in the UK, for example. Of course politically it was a total failure – not one person on the planet had their views on climate change altered in any way by the activities of climate camp. But at least it gave a bunch of people something to do who would otherwise have become demoralised and dejected beyond the point of saving, in many cases.

The point about self-congratulation is a very good one but again I am more ambivalent about this than I used to be. On the one hand the tendency of people who have basically just engaged in a bit of public theatre or a bit of vaguely political group therapy to be very very pleased with themselves about it is both annoying and potentially politically debilitating, in that it might distract them from the possibility of any real political engagement that might actually change anything. On the other hand, that kind of rhetoric is often an important part of the process for those people and in my experience many of them will go on to do more meaningful political work later.

On the other hand…we could make the same kind of inflated claims for Beauty and the Beat but we’re very careful not to, so maybe the guy does have a point. In my last book the conclusion I came to on this was that the difference between projects like BM that actually have some progressive political potential and those which don’t precisely turns on the question of whether they are open to questioning their motives and their failures; so if it is true that BM is as indifferent or hostile to self-questioning as the guy implies, then that really is a shame and is a problem. I think this is the difference between open-ended experimentation and pure escapism. Pure escapism is always a real danger for us I think…I would have to say that it does worry me that even projects like Beauty and the Beat end up being just pure escapism for some people, who probably should be thinking about how to make their communities and whole lives better and not just their weekends. But at the same time there are loads of people who come to BATB who are serious (and in some cases full-time) activists and organisers, and there are definitely people who have moved on from personal escapism to various kinds of community-building, and the point of the party (like, arguably, the point of Burning Man, although obviously on an incomparably larger scale) is to give those people a place to relax and recharge their batteries, which is also very important. At the end of the day it’s not really about the party project itself but about what else is going on outside of it, adjacent to it. But in that context maybe the guy has a very important point about the danger of overinflated claims…which, given that that is his main point all along in both videos, implies that we should take him very seriously.

I thought the point about there terms ‘civil and ‘civilisation’ was arguably a cheap shot – ‘civilisation’ is only a colonialist term if you assume that the West has a monopoly on it. You can just as well say that tribal cultures are as civilised as Western cultures.

For my money, Anarchist Gringo does rather over-use a very vague term: ‘capitalist excess’. He seems to use this term for any kind of consumption of resources whatsoever. This is a rather casual use of the terms ‘capitalist’ and ‘excess’ which he really doesn’t justify and which does a lot of rhetorical work in his argument. I think we do have to make a clear distinction between capitalism as such (i.e. the pursuit of capital accumulation i.e. vast profits which are more than anyone could spend, however many yachts they buy) and just general buying, selling and consuming (which isn’t the same thing). But I think this has to do with a fundamental political and theoretical difference between me and him. I guess he’s coming from a kind of green-anarchist perspective which I really wouldn’t agree with. From my perspective, localism and self-reliance aren’t going to save us…nationalising the banks and turning Apple and Google into giant workers co-ops might. I completely agree about the urgency of saving the environment, but I’m a socialist at the end of the day, as well as a believer in grassroots democracy, and I think that only massive government-oriented action on a global scale, as well as a massive mobilisation at the grassroots, will be able to confront Capital and its determination to chew up the world and spit it out. So I find his criticism of BM’s ‘capitalist excess’ to be itself a bit tokenistic and misplaced. Although from his perspective it’s obviously consistent.

The point about real change being hard work is very important. I would say in fact real political and cultural change always includes a mixture of ecstatic, liberatory, self-transformatory experiences and tough, boring, hard work. If it only has one or the other then it isn’t working. But what it always has as its end result is the collective empowerment of groups – not just the personal enlightenment of individuals. On this point the anarchist gringo is absolutely spot on.