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Castles Made of Sand: The Politics of Burning Man

Speaking with political journalist Steven T. Jones, author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How An Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

What I hear about Burning Man sounds like it’s a self-indulgent hedonistic mess. True?

Some say with a bit of regret that it isn’t the big Bacchanalian drug-fueled orgy that it used to be. In the beginning, they weren’t going out to create this big city. John Law, one of the founders, left in 1996 because he felt it was getting too big and this notion of imposing a map and city rules was very antithetical to what he and a lot of people wanted.  It still is a place to go crazy to a degree, though it’s now morphed into something much bigger. If you’re into weird freaky sex or to do drugs all week, you can find that. I’ve camped with the sound camps that are comprised of a lot of really big hedonists. Then there are people like the Flaming Lotus Girls, who are working their asses off building these giant flaming sculptures. They’re not having fun but they get inspired by what they can do artistically.

Larry Harvey, one of the founders, said, “We took the values of bohemia and created a city around it.” The basic values that the creators lay out are radical self-reliance and self-expression. It’s a de-commodified culture that operates on a gift economy. Everyone who goes is encouraged to make an artistic expression and make their gifts known and to participate actively in the creation and destruction and clean-up of the city.

But why would anyone want to spend all that time building a temporary city instead of trying to bring about actual change in their regular communities?

Throughout the book, I explore this question in various ways. I felt guilty about going to Burning Man in 2004. Some argued that we needed to put these energies and resources that we’re using at Burning Man in any given year toward changing the culture of this country. In the subsequent years, Larry Harvey chose these very socio-political art themes in an effort to nudge the event toward greater engagement with the rest of the world. But it’s ultimately a false choice.

How so?

The inertia of this event is such that it can’t really become a political organization because that’s not what it is. The time that’s spent building that city doesn’t translate easily into other realms. A lot of the reasons why people build this city are because they’re disenfranchised by the political system and with the economic opportunities afforded them.

So they’ve decided to just say “screw it”?

I don’t want to say they’ve given up but they’ve chosen to create this experimental city that’s built an entire culture around rules and ways of relating that are more authentic and organic. Ultimately I was disappointed to see that Burning Man couldn’t have that kind of impact. I describe in the book how, in 2008, I drove from Burning Man to the Democratic National Convention in Denver where Barack Obama got nominated.

I concluded that The Man, whether it be the Burning Man or Barack Obama, is irrelevant. They are defined by the movements around them. Until we have more broad-based social movements that are trying to create political reform that engages more people, there is no pathway from Burning Man to the modern political culture. For a lot of people, it’s enough for them to create this sort of demonstration city.

But then some burners got together and headed down to the Gulf Coast after Burning Man 2005. So it looks like some of them wanted to have a real impact beyond the Nevada desert.