The Politics of Burning Man…or Lack Thereof

By Kelly Soderstrom, GAPA Head of Working Groups

Ever since Burning Man moved away from the shenanigans of the San Francisco-based Cacophony Society towards the creature it has become today, the ghost of perceived political agenda has haunted Black Rock City (BRC). This particular phantom, summoned by journalists, critics, politicians, Burners, and even the FBI has convinced many that Burning Man has (or should have) a political message and agenda. I too had been convinced. Going into Burning Man for the first time this year and with the rapidly approaching US federal elections, I expected to see plenty of politics themed art cars roaming the Playa, lectures on the evils of capitalism, satirical politics-themed costumes, and a general desire to create a socialist utopia in the middle of the desert. What I found was none of that, and all of that.

In preparation for my trip to BRC, I was a good little Burgin and did my homework. I spent many an hour pouring over Youtube videos, blog posts, check lists, Facebook posts, and the official Burning Man website. There were quite a few news articles about the political nature of Burning Man, past art pieces with blatant political messages, and even articles in the Burning Man Journal that discussed the political/non-political nature of the festival. It seemed that, generally speaking, those inside the community rejected the idea of Burning Man being political, while everyone else saw it as a hotbed for liberal political scheming.

From what I saw, I tend to agree with those in the Burning Man community. Other than a few casual discussions with people about the upcoming elections and an anti-Trump rally (which I only heard rumors about and never actually witnessed), I saw no reference to politics. But really, this makes sense. Burning Man was never meant to be a political gathering of any kind. The festival is run with the 10 Principles at its heart, none of which are inherently political. Instead, as Caveat Magister succinctly put it “Burning Man absolutely does not stand for any particular political program precisely because those things it does stand for place the lived human experience over political theory.” It is a festival that celebrates humanity and creativity in all its forms rather than any political ideology.


All of this being said, the deeper I venture into the Burning Man community, the more I can see that there is, indeed, a bit of politics lurking in there. This may not manifest in the traditional sense, e.g. with outright exercise of political expression, but rather surfaces in the actions of Burners and the Burning Man organization (BMorg) as a whole. The BMorg has made a point of including members of the local Native American community in the festival, a type of political negotiation in and of itself. Burners without Borders, a Burning Man affiliated organization dedicated to expanding the 10 Principles to the wider global community and providing disaster relief, supports community engagement projects that could be seen as spreading Burning Man’s own particular brand of politics. This may not be politics in the traditional, hard, pure partisan sense, but it is a type of political and social engagement nonetheless that still gives Burning Man a particular political flavor.

What really makes Burning Man a pseudo-political festival, however, is that damn spirit of perceived political agenda imposed on it by those outside of the community. According to social identity theory, the identity ascribed to the self by others is just as important to identity construction as self-identification. The fact that journalists, politicians, and others continue to try to stick Burning Man in some sort of political box will always give Burning Man a political character, whether it likes it or not.

No, Burning Man is not a place where liberals go to make plans for the next big attack on conservatives or capitalism. It is not a socialist utopia and it is not some nefarious creation meant to distract liberals from making “legitimate” political and social change. It is a place for radical self-expression, artistic exploration, and community. However, as long as people continue to discuss Burning Man in the context of politics and those few Burners participate in social or political change (on or off-Playa), Burning Man will always be haunted by the ghost of politics.


Kelly at Burning Man this year

Burning Man Lingo

Never been to Burning Man and thinking about heading there yourself? Well darling Burgin, here is a quick introduction to the jargon to help you on your way:

  • Black Rock City (BRC): This is the name of the city that springs up during the festival in the middle of Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA. The city has everything from camps, a coffee shop, post office, and airport.
  • The Playa: The area of desert outside of Black Rock City. This is where the Man, the Temple, and all manner of art instillations are built. It is also the roaming-grounds for many a colorful art car.
  • Burn: The slang term for a single Burning Man festival. For example, I would say that this was my first Burn.
  • Burners: People who are part of the Burning Man community.
  • The Man: The 40-foot wooden effigy built at the center of Black Rock City. This is the statue that is burned at the end of the week and is the high point in the week’s festivities.
  • Dust: The extremely fine, white, alkali “sand” that makes up the desert. This stuff gets everywhere…and I mean EVERYWHERE.
  • MOOP (Matter Out of Place): Burning Man is a “leave no trace” festival, so anything that is left behind is MOOP and needs to be collected and removed.
  • Gifting: Burning Man is a “gifting society”. Nothing is for sale (except coffee and ice). Instead, everything is given to everyone else without the expectation of receiving something in return. This is very different from a barter system in that nothing is traded.
  • Virgin/Burgin: A first-time Burning Man festival-goer.
  • Art/Mutant Car: These are cars that have been turned into mobile pieces of art. They can be everything from sailing ships and giant chairs to a polar bear with a top hat or a flaming octopus. They can usually be found roaming the Playa blasting EDM music at silly hours of the morning.
  • Theme/Sound Camp: These are group camps that make up the vast majority of Black Rock City. Camps can follow any theme from bumble bees to dead Barbie dolls. Camps usually provide food, drink, and/or entertainment for Burners. The most notorious of these are the sound camps, which host huge parties and blast music well into the wee hours of the morning.
  • Darkwad: It gets very dark at night and those without lights run the risk of being run over by an art car or bike. Don’t be a darkwad…wear lights!
  • Sparkle Pony: a participant who does not fully embrace the principle of “radical self-reliance” and overly relies on the resources of the community. They are usually very fashionably attired, because they packed nothing but costumes.
  • Exodus: The long, long trip back home from Burning Man.

For more information on Burning Man in general, check out their official website here: http://burningman.org/.

London-based postgraduate student in Gender & Sexuality Studies. On the side: playing ukulele, exploring, cinema!

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