Anarchy in the desert: prototyping a culture of self-sovereignty

(I just got back from That Thing in the Desert and there’s playa dust in my playa dust. There are probably a handful of posts to be squeezed out of my first trip to Burning Man, so uhhh…if you don’t like BM, sorry. But not sorry. It’s just what’s happening.)

A culture where there are no strangers

I worked out pretty early on that I wasn’t a night burner – everything was more disorienting, it was harder to meet people and easier to lose your friends when they zoomed off on their bikes and didn’t hear you yell out for them to stop. But I considered my first year a tasting plate of Burning Man experiences, so I wanted to try it all before I rejected it for an early night’s sleep. The sound camps were booming and the music somewhat indistinguishable and muddled together, but I somehow ended up at a large DJ stage with the label Slutgarden and the music wasn’t bad so I decided to stay.

‘Safety third’ is a motto you hear a lot at Burning Man, and it typifies the principle of self-reliance embedded into the culture. A veteran burner I talked to once remarked ‘they [the Burning Man organisation, BMorg] really only do rigorous inspections on the pyrotechnics. All other structures, like rigging, well, they don’t really care. So it’s up to you to evaluate if you think something is safe enough to do. If you get on something, like a tower or an art car, and it feels unsafe, well, it probably is. No one is going to tell you what to do.’

With this in mind I noticed a metal cage in the crowd in front of Slutgarden’s stage. It was tall enough for someone to stand in, and had a platform for someone to stand inside it. I wanted to climb on top of it. Knowing it hadn’t been evaluated by an external authority, I examined it to see how strong it was. Pretty damn strong, but not bolted to the ground. I climbed up and sat on the top, letting my head and shoulders doing some kind of laidback introvert dancing as I perched above the crowd.

Suddenly I felt the cage jerking and looked down to see some drunk dude grabbing the front of the cage with both hands and shaking it violently. In that instant I was terrified, because he could easily tip the whole thing over and throw me off onto bodies and hard playa below. All I wanted was for him to stop. Without thinking, I kicked out and connected with his head – much harder than I’d intended. He stumbled back and swore at me, shocked. I was shocked too. I didn’t mean to hurt him; I just wanted him to stop rocking the cage.

I climbed down and tried to apologise, but he was still shitty at me and he didn’t seem to feel bad for almost tipping over the structure I was sitting on. We apologised to each other but neither felt that the other had understood or really shown any remorse. I no longer wanted to be there so I went to go unlock my bike and started to leave. Tears welled up and my body was hot, with knots of energy pulsing in my chest.

‘Hey, if you’re staying, could you move your bike across the esplanade so we have more space?’ It was someone from Slutgarden, trying to keep the kaggle of bikes out of the way of flailing dancers. He took a closer look at my face and his expression changed.

‘You look like you could use a hug. Would you like a hug?’ I thought about it for a second and then said yes.

The instant I was wrapped in this stranger’s arms I burst into tears. He was open, and comforting, and just held me and let me let it all out. My very primal need to be seen, and to release the tension that had arisen from the kicking in the face incident gradually dissipated in the face of this stranger’s generosity.

As I became calmer and wiped the tears off my face we started talking. He introduced himself. I described what had happened and why I had become so upset. He said I should meet his friends and pulled his friends over to meet me. They were open and friendly too, and when they wanted to leave, I left with them to ride through the night together onto the next adventure. This little group adopted me and for a night I was one of them.

One of the nicest things about Burning Man is that so many of your conversations start at what would be the mid-point in the default world. While riding to the next venue I started talking to one of the guys in the group about playa relationships and how Burning Man had influenced his relationship with his girlfriend. We got deep into how we were negotiating insecurities, both ours and those of our partners, and offered heartfelt advice to each other. I never introduced myself, nor did I get his name.

After misplacing my watch earlier in the week I would occasionally ride up to people wearing watches on their wrists and ask them the time. They would respond, and sometimes I’d just say thank you and ride off. A ritual like that is completely normal, and even perhaps more intimate than normal street-stranger interactions in the default world off the playa. But in the desert I realised the words were hollow and I was often using them on autopilot, speaking magic words that would grant me the items I desired without interacting with the agentiness of the human I spoke to. The context offered the opportunity to re-imagine even the smallest interactions into actual chances to connect as human monkeys, rather than treating other humans as rigid, abstract phenomena. Noticing and reacting to real things as they happened let you be more alive in the presence of others.

People are more agenty at Burning Man; in front of your eyes they become real actors playing alongside you, rather than melting into a background of non-player characters. Any interaction on the playa or in Black Rock City is a real conversation, where you are talking to a real soul behind the eyes of a human animal. This starkly contrasts with the so-called ‘humans’ we interact with in our heavily bureaucratised lives. A person can have a full range of expressions, but a police officer has a limited set. (The contrast between the actual Nevada police officers and the Burning Man rangers illustrated this beautifully.) Any time you rocked up to a bar and asked the person behind it for a drink, you were talking to a real human who would behave the way they naturally wanted to. They would sing, start a conversation, or perhaps make fun of you. All of these things can theoretically happen in the default world but the overwhelming dominance of them at Burning Man was surprising.

On Sunday morning I watched a woman working on the Perimeter team tell someone he couldn’t enter the Temple (as preparations were being made to burn it down), but that if he wanted to write something to add she would be able to put it in the Temple before it was burned. She had some position of authority, but the interaction was strikingly different from authority interactions in the default world. She wasn’t merely enforcing a rule. She was doing work (preparing the temple for burning) and in the course of that work had created a boundary she needed others to agree to. But there was no authority-public relationship.

As she explained things to him in this momentary interaction, she recognised the humanity in him and in what he wanted. She saw that what he wanted was to pay his respects at the temple, not to cross her (rather arbitrary) boundary. Her offer let them fulfill both her need to protect the boundary and his need to get whatever catharsis the Temple gave him. The entire ten second conversation was a meeting between two fully sovereign beings, rather than an agent of authority (bureaucrat) and a subject of authority (citizen).

I saw intense flickers of this relationship dynamic, this lack of a subject-to-authority ‘public’ all across the playa. When my friend and I had scored good spots to watch the Man burn high up on a four-storey scaffolding ‘sky lounge’ and the people who ran that camp, (having spent the evening making sure the scaffolding wasn’t overloaded with people) wanted to come up and sit on the highest level, they asked us to leave as humans. They recognised what we wanted, honestly acknowledged what they wanted, and offered alternatives, (the lower levels did, in fact, have perfectly adequate views) and asked, not forced us to accept them. Conflicts of interest became a negotiation between relative equals, not an imposition of rules or policies.

Negotiating with people as agents rather than as representations of abstract phenomena like companies, communities and governments meant two things. One, that every human you encounter is, or is on the way to being, the fullest expression of humanity that that body, mind, identity, environment and cultural context can create. A bureaucrat or a service worker is a shadow of a human – not in the sense that the person is any less person-y in the remainder of their life, but that within that role their self-expression is limited to the sets of actions that carry out the explicit or implicit aims of the hierarchy their role exists within.

An usher cannot drop their usher-like habitus and give you a full-bodied hug as a stranger when you need it – the professional customs that define their role prohibit it, even if implicitly. We distrust public displays of emotion by CEOs and other executives precisely because they are a representation of an idea, and not a real person; thus any outburst of fear or sadness must merely be a tool serving the purpose their role was created to serve.

Second, being immersed in an environment of agents meant that there was no ground. There is an illusion of safety that comes with giving responsibility and ownership to someone, even an abstract entity. Anyone who has ever submitted as a D/s sub will have felt this feeling of release, where worries are gone once they are out of your sphere of control and in someone else’s. In a healthy dominance relationship, like the one we might have with our parents as young children, this translates into space for being less of an agent, and for growing into becoming more of one. When we don’t have to worry about where we’re going to live at age five, it gives us space to learn how to be a social animal, and practice skills in order to interact with others. Being forced into premature agentiness stunts the growth of less survival-critical skills. On the other hand, being bound to dominance relationships when we don’t need them, or when they are more overbearing than we need, leads to anxiety, depression, and limiting of our potential.

The kind of freedom offered at Burning Man (offered; I’m sure not everyone takes it) is the freedom required to truly access our wants, needs and values, and to engage with the wants, needs and values of other people around us without fear that they will be politicised (read: co-opted into a story that reinforces a dominance hierarchy we’re in or adjacent to). The structure of Burning Man  comes top-down from the publicly-visible ten principles and participants’ interpretation of them, as well as ground up from the decades of experimentation of the old burners who form the backbone of the city, both through literally serving important functions like being medics and trash collectors, and through serving as a model of the new culture for virgins to emulate.

This structure provides a minimal grammar for interaction between humans without proscribing what interactions should take place. In this way the culture fosters a healthy kind of sovereignty in participants that doesn’t demand subjugation of others, only freedom from their own subjugation.

People die at Burning Man. There’s often outrage at it, particularly in the outside world, but I think this outrage stems from either a misunderstanding or a disagreement with what the culture is and what it is trying to facilitate. People die in the default world too, from suicide, car accidents, heart disease, medical malpractice. it seems that people take death within a system as evidence that the system is flawed, but within all social systems there is a trade-off to balance between risk of death and harm and risk of oppression, stifling and stasis.

When we blame the Burning Man organisation for, say, a death by suicide at Burning Man, we are treating the BMorg like a regular Western organisation with sovereignty over its participants and a hierarchy that controls and determines the actions of those within it. In a collective hierarchy, yes, those with more power can be responsible for the deaths of those with less, in the same way we hold parents responsible for child neglect and politicians who refuse to pass more stringent gun laws responsible for school shootings. Because these hierarchies have taken away power from individuals, we blame those who have taken it when preventable incidents occur.

The BMorg takes nothing away from the citizens of Black Rock City, except the bare minimum it is required to by law, enforced on site by Nevada police, and not by Burning Man. It creates a few key incentives, such as determining camp placement by the cleanliness and participant activation of the camp in previous years, largely to manage externalities that otherwise don’t affect the camps themselves, but affect the whole city, or the environment in which it is created.

Burning Man does not, for better or worse, take away its citizens right to die, or to do risky things that might lead to death. And for the most part, people look after that bit themselves, with help from their friends and some excellent public institutions like the medics, rangers, and the Zendo (the psychedelic crisis management camp). And in this way, those with the most incentive to act have the power to act in any given situation. If I think a structure is unsafe, I get down. If someone is upsetting me, I leave. The culture provides the space to vote with your feet and exit situations you don’t like, and prevents unnecessary power accumulation so that your voice can reasonably be heard. Other than that, it’s up to you and your campmates to determine the course of your life in that short eight days.

There is a trade-off in societies and the institution that enable them between safety in the moment and longer-term resilience. A lot of the rage at governments like the US government is about the lack of short term safety. An experiment at anarchy, like Burning Man, is to some extent an experiment in refusing to build short term safety nets in the hope that it will build more resilience to risk in the future.

There are other trade-offs in protecting people from violence and death too that aren’t about personal decisionmaking. Lack of autonomy makes us sick and depressed, and forces us to rely more on the institutions that trade our autonomy for protection. Both literally and metaphorically, at Burning Man you are closer to the earth. Many of the civilisational bubbles we’ve settled into don’t exist in Burning Man, and as we are forced to directly reckon with duststorms, deathtrap artistic creations and the naked self-expression of 70,000 other fully realised human beings, we become more capable of dealing with those things.

This Burning Man culture is not quite real-world ready, and it’s constantly threatened with being overrun by flashy Insta-capitalism, but as it is, it creates spaces to process and heal trauma, relax out of hierarchically specified roles, and then provides the foundations for an iterative process of gradual expansions of autonomy. The most wonderful burners I met were the middle-aged men and women, particularly men, who still functioned as members of society and weren’t ‘crazy hippies’, but could breathe outside of Western society’s rather constricting definitions of what a ‘man’, ‘professional’, ‘leader’ or ‘father’ might look like. They were so alive and so much fun to get to know!

What might a civilisation be like, that actually helped its participants become more resilient and sovereign? Certainly not the one we have now, and most libertarian fantasies don’t have it right either. But this little anarchic experiment in the desert provides one glimpse into the necessary pieces we could assemble to make it happen.

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