The next reading and discussion of my book will be tonight at 7 pm in Berkeley’s Revolution Books, a store whose ethos is shaped by the Revolutionary Communist Party and its belief that only a full-on people’s revolution will cure what ails this country. So as I work on my program for that event, I’ve been contemplating this question: is Burning Man a revolutionary training camp?
Those who have read my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, know that I don’t think the event is animated by communist zeal, and that most burners are actually fairly apolitical. Much of my six-year narrative center on efforts by founder Larry Harvey and others to try to nudge the culture toward great sociopolitical relevance and engagement, without much success.
But there are some undeniably revolutionary aspects to the annual creation of Black Rock City, an egalitarian village based on communal effort and a gift economy, a place that probably realizes the true communist ideal more than the Soviet Union ever did. Karl Marx’s edict, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” would fit right in with Burning Man’s 10 Principles, alongside concepts that include Participation, Communal Effort, and Radical Inclusion.
Larry, who wrote those 10 Principles, is most certainly no communist, but he said that the principles were derived “from the ethos that guides Bohemians.” In other words, they are a repudiation of American exploitation, commodification, and imperialism the Chairman Bob Avakian and his RCP comrades are targeting with their revolutionary rhetoric.
But the question I’m raising isn’t just whether Burning Man is a revolutionary concept, or whether it shares some values with the communists, but whether it is a revolutionary training camp. And what I’m trying to get at with this distinction is whether this annual ritual of building and destroying Black Rock City is an exercise that prepares us for revolution.
Think about it: we organize into thousands of cells called theme camps, collectives, or tribes; we do outreach and fundraising, often through clandestine activities like throwing huge underground parties; we engineer crazy fire-spewing contraptions and mutant vehicles off all kinds; we have spawned a vast, interconnected, and well-organized network of regional groups in cities around the world, all organized according to the 10 Principles; we have internal security forces (Black Rock Rangers) as a buffer against outside policing agencies; and we have created an extensive system of social services and outreach bureaus, from medical services to the arts (Black Rock Arts Foundation) to communications (from Jack Rabbit Speaks to Burning Man Information Radio) to energy (Black Rock Solar) to facilitating disaster response and good works (Burners Without Borders).
But beyond all those functions that mirror those of a revolutionary movement, there’s the more basic notion that we’ve being practicing building and then rebuilding a new kind of society, over and over again, for a quarter-century. And at this point, we’re very good at it, and we’ve learned a great deal about how to do it and the pitfalls to avoid. We have a revolution every year, just for the fun of it.
In his books “Basics,” Avakian sounds a basically Maoist philosophy, stressing the need to organize the masses along revolutionary principles to be ready for the day when the unsustainable capitalist/imperialist system begins to falter in order to wrest control of this country away from the fascist forces who will seek to maintain power and order through force.
When that day comes in this country, when the wheels start to come up the wagon and the Tea Party, Christian fundamentalist, wealthy end-gamer, and militia crowds make their play for control, I’m going to go link up with all my burner friends and tribes and find out whether this practice we’ve been engaged in could transform us into the vanguard party for the grand and glorious revolution that Marx predicted.
Power to the people!