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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2004 Summer Newsletter

Reinventing Politics in Black Rock City

by Hugh D´Andrade

It's a good bet that most Burning Man participants would object to the intrusion of political ideas on their enjoyment of liberated time on the playa. Life is being lived on such a grand scale in Black Rock City that to broach the subject of social strife in our "real" lives back home can feel like a drag, the insertion of the banal and insipid into a moment of sublime and transcendent experience. What could be worse than to be riding an enormous, glowing whale across a prehistoric lakebed, surrounded by fascinating, beautiful, half-naked people, only to be asked what one thinks of Nader's latest run for office?

The hostility of many Burners to political thought at Burning Man is born of a healthy desire to prevent their vibrant cultural scene from being hijacked by opportunists with narrow agendas of one sort or another. Who knows — had the participants and organizers of Burning Man been less savvy from the start, the event might have degenerated long ago into a political rally that would have left everyone feeling righteous and morally superior, but culturally and spiritually bereft.

If "politics" consists only of the uninspiring platitudes of career politicians and the drone of media commentators, let's leave it behind when we pack up our trucks and head into the desert, along with the excess packaging we remove from our consumables.

On the other hand, if "politics" has another meaning, as words often do, we don't want to lose the baby when we dispose of the dirty bathwater. "Politics" — from "polis", the Greek word for city — is also the word we use to describe the ongoing debate about what kind of world we want to live in, and the various strategies for how to get there. Our city on a hill (or dry lakebed) may seem remote, but the ripples of energy it sets in motion are continually affecting the larger world beyond its temporary borders.

First-time visitors to Black Rock City often report odd feelings of dissociation on returning to the so-called "real world". Our intense experience as active participants in a city organized around social pleasure, artistic creativity and the exchange of gifts makes for a glaring, uncomfortable contrast with our lives at home as more or less passive workers and consumers. To visit Black Rock City and enjoy it is also to ask, on some level, why can't life be like this all the time? What can be changed to bring our lives into line with our dreams, hopes, desires, and expectations? To ask these questions is to think politically, in a particularly radical way.

Many people make more or less drastic changes in their own lives after attending Burning Man — we eventually find some way to bring the wildness and spontaneity home with us as we work with friends to stage performances, create guerilla art installations, organize benefits, and create many other kinds of social projects. Essentially, we end up plugging into a wider community, not just in the Nevada desert, but at home where we live. Some of us drift away from Burning Man itself, but we keep the fires of Black Rock City burning in our back yards.

When you consider the sheer volume of inter-connectedness and sociability growing out of Burning Man, all of it centered not on generating wealth for corporations or power for politicians, but on cooperatively creating a better life for thousands of people, it becomes clear that the world is being changed — incrementally, in ways that are difficult to quantify, but changed for the better.

This tendency within the Burning Man community towards inter-connectedness, mutual aid, the forging of life-long alliances, runs counter to one of the most disturbing patterns of social life in contemporary societies. In the United States and elsewhere, a quiet breakdown in civil society is taking place, with fewer and fewer people belonging to any sort of social organization (other than their places of employment — which more often than not are temporary, alien environments). Neighborhood organizations, unions, PTAs, and church groups all have suffered a decline in numbers over the past thirty years. Even bowling leagues are falling by the wayside, as Robert Putnam noted in his excellent study of this problem, Bowling Alone.

This rapid decline in the forms of community that past generations enjoyed has created a vacuum, a void that powerful forces are rushing to fill, with ominous implications for the future.

Individuals that are cut off from any face-to-face community, housed in lonely neighborhoods that are hardly neighborly, transported alone in massive, quasi-military vehicles to and from increasingly anonymous workplaces and shopping centers, are vulnerable to the manipulation of powerful voices piped into their tiny cocoons by the corporate media. We already know too well what these voices have to say: Fear your neighbor! Buy more stuff!

In this world of diminished communal connectivity, political agendas based on fear and greed can spread and flourish. The common use of the label "conservative" to describe this tendency, which thrives on keeping an isolated population in a constant state of agitation and resentment, is a misnomer. Nothing truly democratic is conserved by policies that plunder the environment, diminish public services, limit civil liberties, and burden future generations with the weight of debt. The public interest isn't served when everything is privatized and corporations are allowed to write the laws. Communities are based upon communion with the needs of others; they teach the young, and they care for the old — but, for many, this does not appear to be the future being planned for us.

While lone individuals may feel powerless to combat this overwhelming tide of bad news, community voices are fighting back. One of the sanest (and most hilarious) is the prominent Black Rock citizen, Reverend Billy. Billy brought his Church of Stop Shopping, complete with gospel choir, to the playa in 2003. In the world outside of Black Rock City, Billy uses unstoppable verbal firepower to wake a stupefied public from its consumerist sleepwalk — much to the chagrin of the management at chain stores like Starbucks.

Is this interactive art or political speech? When Billy's troupe toured California earlier this year, aided by a grant from the Black Rock Arts Foundation, it was very difficult to tell the difference. Main Street merchants, local civic groups and Burning Man participants joined together to protect their towns from the expansion of Wal-Mart into their communities. It was a prime example of how grassroots participatory culture can protect social spaces that nurture the diversity of culture. Billy preached, his choir sang and danced, and many people who wouldn't normally make contact enthusiastically joined in. All this is evidence of the irresistible spillage of a marvelous, liberated life from Black Rock City into more familiar but hotly contested realms. We have to ask ourselves: if this made sense at Burning Man, why isn't it relevant in our hometowns? If we can decommodify the world of Black Rock City through creative acts of celebration, why not apply these values to the places where we lead our lives?

In the absence of the civilizing influence of community, a vision of social life emerges in which individuals compete mercilessly against each other; cooperation and openness are seen as signs of weakness, and the pursuit of power, wealth and status appears to be the only goal of life. Humans are seen as intrinsically lazy, aggressive, competitive and self-centered. As Francine Prose pointed out recently in Harper's magazine, this view of the world is endlessly promoted by so-called "reality programming" of shows like Fear Factor and Survivor. More and more people come to feel they are alone in a vicious fight for survival.

Anyone who has been to Burning Man knows this vision of humanity is incorrect. To live in Black Rock City is to have direct knowledge based on lived experience to the contrary. Humans can survive together, interact, and share resources, skills and ideas without brutalizing, tricking or exploiting one another. What's more, life in a city organized around these principles is so liberating, so energizing, that it makes "ordinary life" appear somewhat unreal.

There is another reason why people may avoid a political discussion regarding Burning Man, and that is the obvious fact that the political situation seems rather grim to many people. No one likes being reminded that they are up to their own necks in shit. If change is unlikely, it may seem that holding one's nose and changing the subject is the best option. But the longevity of Burning Man and its spread to an ever-growing number of communities prove that social change can happen, that we can alter the world. How much and how fast is up to us.

To argue for a political view of the Burning Man movement is not to impose an agenda on what, after all, cannot be controlled. But we have learned that many labels — liberal, conservative, libertarian — are often illusions. These distinctions, when considered in the desert, seem to have less substance than the sound of canvas flapping in the wind. We also know that everyone, potentially, is an eccentric, and eccentrics can cooperate and learn to live together. Together they can build a polis, a city and a nationwide community. Once people give themselves a taste of a liberated life, once they know through experience their own power to create and re-create the world, there is no telling what they will do. In the end, perhaps the only truly certain thing we know about our culture and community is that it will always resist the reduction of life to the dull, the banal, the passive and the ordinary.

As the radicals of Paris put in during the events of May 1968: "Be realistic — Demand the impossible!"