Festivals, Politics, and Change

By David Nickles on Tuesday, 09 September 2014, hits: 12960

Humberto Braga recently wrote an article entitled “How and Why ‘Conscious’ Festivals Need to Change,” where he argued forgoing one year of Burning Man in order to buy our way out of dominant culture by building a techno-utopic retreat. Braga’s frustration is understandable, even if his proposed solution falls considerably short of addressing the issues he critiques. Nowhere in this vision does he seek to directly negate the coerced inequalities we face in daily life. In fact, it’s not too difficult to make the argument that his proposal is rife with many of the same problems he (accurately) identifies within “festival culture.” No doubt he will disagree with my portrayal of his ideas, but you, dear reader, can make up your own mind on this point.

Following Braga’s critique, numerous conversations about festival culture started, resumed, or took on new directions. Amidst these discussions, Brian Duffy wrote a response to Braga entitled, “How Burning Man and Festival Culture Make Change Personal.” In an attempt to keep this digital dialogue rolling, I would now like to offer a response to Duffy’s perspective.

Early on in his article, Duffy states:

However, festival culture does not in itself constitute a sociopolitical movement. A transformational festival should be no more or less political than a neighborhood potluck. Festivals are not designed to orient their attendees toward a specific agenda. No matter how obvious it may be to so many of us that problems like child poverty and military-industrial exploitation require urgent solutions, festivals like Burning Man cannot and should not frame themselves as rallies for political change, “progressive” or otherwise.

There are several assertions here that beg questioning, such as the claim that “festival culture does not in itself constitute a sociopolitical movement.” If we understand “sociopolitical” to refer to phenomena that combine social and political factors, “social” to refer to phenomena relating to groups of people interacting together in some form of community, “political” to refer to relationships of power between people, and “movement” to refer to a group of people working together to advance shared ideas, how could festival cultures be anything other than sociopolitical movements? Is there a single festival that does not challenge its attendees to grapple with questions of power relationships within a temporary community, advancing some shared ideas? The question is not whether festival cultures present sociopolitical movements, but whether these sociopolitical movements have any bearing on the world at large.

ACABDuffy goes on to state, “A transformational festival should be no more or less political than a neighborhood potluck.” I suspect we travel in different circles, as I have attended neighborhood potlucks that have turned into street marches and community gardening events that have blossomed into building occupations. So if I take his words at face value, a transformative festival should be a radical act of rebellion and insurrection. However, in context, it is clear that Duffy is not suggesting that we should act as we choose to within the contexts of our neighborhood gatherings, but rather, that a transformative festival is not the place for “political” action. The implicit distinction between an “act” (such as a neighborhood potluck) and a “political act” is a fallacious division that is best cast aside if we wish to actually affect change in the world. The political is personal, full stop.

The final sentences of the paragraph assert that, “Festivals are not designed to orient their attendees toward a specific agenda. No matter how obvious it may be [that the world is a messed up place] festivals like Burning Man cannot and should not frame themselves as rallies for political change…” Not only do festivals orient their attendees towards specific agendas (didn’t this whole discussion pop off in relation to Burning Man’s ten principles?) but the claim that such gatherings should not orient themselves towards “political change” (presumably differentiated from “apolitical change”) presents a second false dichotomy. Of course, this also begs the question of, “Why not?”

Festivals like Burning Man are incubators for a very specific process. We’re supposed to have giant parties where we assemble from miles around to meet in a temporary place designed to produce mind-blowing ballets of synchronistic encounters and heart-shattering crescendos of boundary dissolution, giving us the fresh perspective we need to re-create ourselves as complete human beings. This process is apolitical, and we’ve been doing it since the beginning of civilization.

Personal re-creation is apolitical? In a world of global industrial capitalism, where patriarchy, white supremacy, and numerous other forms of oppression exert tremendous pressure on countless people worldwide, how could personal re-creation ever be “apolitical?” At its lowest level, it might take place in the realm of identity politics—hardly apolitical, even if considered ineffective by many—but personal re-creation should (by definition) change politics of the mind and body, and has the potential to reverberate profoundly in numerous other political realms.

The concept of radical inclusion, one of Burning Man’s Ten Principles, the one that lets people attend regardless of their social status or ideological affiliation, is actually the apolitical stance that could in fact be responsible for the most “progressive” real world change. Political positions are outgrowths of spiritual or otherwise fundamentally existential positions, and it is staggeringly difficult to cause a political shift in an individual without first producing an existential shift. Were Burning Man or any other festival to take an overt stance and officially promote a political agenda, those that saw themselves outside of that agenda would be excluded and deprived of the chance at their own transformational shift.

Burning Man’s principle of radical inclusion only applies to people who can buy-in to begin with; the claim that Burning Man “lets people attend regardless of their social status or ideological affiliation” is simply not true. Class is a social status. If you cannot afford Burning Man, you are excluded. If you cannot take off work because your family depends on you in a society that seems rabidly fixated on decimating the few social safety nets still in place, you are excluded. Burning Man, by its very nature, is exclusive on the grounds of social status. Here Duffy gives some insight as to what he means by apolitical, as he states, “radical inclusion…lets people attend regardless of their social status…[this] is actually the apolitical stance that could in fact be responsible for the most ‘progressive’ real world change.”

Unfortunately, “radical inclusion” does not transcend the social war waged against us in our daily lives, and so, this claim is essentially meaningless. Or put another way, endorsing the inclusion principle as an allegedly “apolitical” stance capable of affecting “real world change” ignores the inherent exclusion of certain classes of people and glosses over the reality of the situation in order to claim that the “existential shifts” offered by Burning Man are accessible to anyone who might wish to experience them. Burning Man (and other festivals) doesn’t require that “those that [see] themselves…[outside of its agenda are] excluded and deprived of the chance at their own transformational shift.” It simply adheres to capitalist logic and negates all those who ARE (forget how they see themselves) outside of the agenda dictated by flows of capital, depriving them of “their own transformational shift.”

It doesn’t always work for every attendee, but it works for enough of us. At festivals, we are culturally de-programmed, allowing our hardened snakeskins of certainty to be ceremoniously shed, leaving us pink and vulnerable, ready to face the immediate presence of true reality with eyes fully open. To take advantage of this vulnerability by mandating a subsequent cultural re-programming process with a prepared bullet-list of fashionably anti-establishment political agenda items defeats the purpose of the entire exercise.

The claim that, “At festivals, we are culturally de-programmed,” should be a red flag for anyone who has attended a festival. I assume this is meant within the context of dominant culture, as each festival has its own culture to which it requests (and in some cases, demands) adherence from its participants, thereby making such an absolute statement somewhat silly. But even if we understand this to mean that we are culturally de-programmed vis-a-vis dominant culture, there’s still a mountain of evidence that contradicts this claim. Patriarchy and white supremacy don’t suddenly disappear when you drive into Burning Man; one need only read some of the outstanding fliers about consent posted by the Bureau of Erotic Discourse, or catch a glimpse of any of the countless tokenizing “costumes” consisting of culturally appropriated components to understand the degree to which dominant culture is alive and well within the festival grounds. Of course, if that’s not enough, there is also the rising phenomenon of turnkey camps and the potential for even more visible class conflict within Burning Man itself, presenting the antithesis of cultural de-programming.

dusty rangers 5378According to Duffy’s sweeping claim, BED’s anti-rape-culture awareness campaign qualifies as “[mandated] cultural re-programming” enforced upon the poor, vulnerable, apolitical, and culturally-deprogrammed denizens of Black Rock City. By Duffy’s logic, BED’s actions defeat “the purpose” of Burning Man, preventing participants from experiencing some supposedly “true reality.” When applied to the real world of BRC, this analysis just doesn’t hold up. Not only because Burning Man doesn’t engage in cultural de-programming, but because if you apply this logic to the numerous political undertakings of BRC—and let’s be real, what is the BED, if not a political undertaking— you are left with a de facto argumentum ad absurdum.

Sometimes the last “type” of person you would expect to have a heart-opening cosmic journey will only ever have the opportunity to do so at a transformational festival, and if those festivals start branding ideologies like fiery swords, those who consider themselves outside those ideologies will not feel welcome, and they will not attend. Those who need the transformation the most will not receive it, and the festivals will be in danger of becoming insular echo-chambers where we all shout our agreements on all the ways we hate the man.

So, according to Duffy, the barrier to having “heart-opening cosmic journey[s]” is not the cost of attending Burning Man, nor the ability to take a week off of work, but rather the looming specter of “festivals…branding ideologies like fiery swords.” This is an interesting claim, especially as it goes on to state that if festivals brandish ostensibly flaming ideologies, “Those who need the transformation the most will not receive it.” The notion that people with enough privilege and resources to attend Burning Man are in greater need of personal transformation than those without seems flawed to me. To argue that the presentation of ideologies—and again, what are Burning Man’s ten principles, or Boom’s focus on “sustainability” if not ideologies—denies more people the chance at transformational festival experiences than class structure (and the resulting lack of access) is to whitewash the structural oppression of our society in order to advance the argument that holding “apolitical” festivals somehow affords everybody access. It’s just not true.

The consequences of these living-dream encounters with the truth and beauty of universal human creativity and connection, when combined with the individual encounters and conversations and workshops and panel discussions, produced a sense of urgency to create real change in my own life and my own community in a thousand small ways. I saw the need to take the sort of change I wanted for the world and make it real in my immediate situation. Participation in national politics or volunteering for international non-profits or donating to massive charity campaigns seems to me far less effective than acting on myself, my home and my neighborhood.

Holler. Now we are starting to get somewhere. This argument for direct action hits the nail on the head. Forget the politicians, forget the charities, forget the NGOs and the non-profit industrial complex. I agree with Duffy’s assertion that we need more anarchic organization and action. Find (or create) the projects that you find motivating and find the others willing to take action in the world around you, and then do it! Don’t wait for the politicians to fix things (they won’t), or advocacy groups to change things (they can’t), or the conditions to become more “favorable” to your endeavor (the odds will always be stacked against you); find ways to act now!

I am therefore unconvinced by Humberto’s grand plan to divert the millions of dollars spent on festivals to instead fund the creation of a “progressive, technologically sustainable community that could sustain numerous festivals”; it comes down to the nature of community and trust…[How] comfortable would you be donating your $2000 Burning Man budget to a Model Community that said “don’t worry, we have a progressive sustainability agenda and the experts are going to show us all how to live more consciously, and oh yeah, uh, open source”? The kind of leadership that it takes to build a permanent radicalized community is entirely different than the kind of leadership that it takes to throw a weeklong festival, and the scalability problem isn’t something you can throw money at to solve.

PlanMesoamericaBeehiveCollectivesmallI agree that Braga’s techno-utopic vision to have the BMorg buy its way out of capitalism is doomed from the start, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. Braga’s vision does nothing to challenge the machinery at the root of capitalism and industrial civilization. Without confronting these monstrosities, any project set up in opposition to (or as in this case, in escapism from) the horrors of these institutional structures is doomed to fail, as capitalism ultimately seeks to fold the entirety of existence into capitalist endeavors. By not challenging these frameworks, and instead seeking to carve out a safe little niche for “transformative change” on the margins of capitalist society, the proposed organization or “community” would, at best, present some safe-haven for progressive reformism, perpetually unable to address the root problems of the issues it claims to focus on.

There is no such thing as a sustainable international festival. It’s just the nature of the beast and that’s OK. What’s not OK is selling people myths and lies of creating a “technologically sustainable community that could sustain numerous festivals.” I agree with Duffy that scalability presents a major issue, as does the concept of sustainable technology within an industrial context. However, I would challenge Duffy’s assertion that we need a specific type of leader to create such communities, unless he was referring to some internal quality of “leadership” within all of us. We all have capabilities within ourselves to make the best decisions for our own lives. We don’t need someone to tell us how to build “permanent radicalized” communities. We need to challenge the structural systems that currently prevent us from coming together and building these communities from the ground up. As long as we buy into the narratives that stem from our coercion into atomized societal roles by economics, politicians, and police, we will be unable to affect this kind of change.

It’s very easy for us to agree that we want to throw a wild and crazy life-changing festival where everyone is invited for a week. It’s very difficult for us to agree on how to live and who is invited to share our homes. Humberto hopes that this proposed permanent community would be based in “progressive values.” Which progressive values would those be, exactly?

In case the subtext of my previous paragraph was not clear, forget top-down, hierarchical “communities.” A community in which the value system is dictated by any singular individual(s) or apparatus of control, rather than consented upon by community members, is inherently authoritarian. This is not for anyone other than people who come together of their own volition to decide. Also, progressive values ain’t gonna fix the world, even if they are well intentioned (and even if progressives are “nice” people who generally want to make things better). The type of reformism inherent to progressive positions ultimately serves to recuperate desires for radical change, rendering them ineffective at truly challenging the systemic problems we face.

Rather than trying to rally support around the idea that BMORG ought to cancel Burning Man for a year and instead have a Kickstarter campaign to build a “Burning-Man-Values” city of the future, communities of Festival-Goers need to look around the room and start using their heart-centered abundance to manifest co-created sustainability in their own homes. It’s not a question of “Look at all these hundreds of millions of dollars we’re spending on one big thing! Wouldn’t it be great if we spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a different one big thing?” It’s a question of Burners building real communities inside and among the houses and apartments we are already living in.

Word. Preach it, Duffy. Just remember that lifestyle choices alone are not going to get us out of the predicament we’re in.

Don’t wait for someone else to build a big magical sustainable burning town where everything will be sorted out by a non-profit board of directors. You want to live “more consciously”, “more sustainably”? Work together with your roommates to sort out the stuff that’s not working in your household, right now. Have a house meeting. Have a clutter-purge. Wash the fucking dishes.

And don’t forget to work to dismantle the structural institutions that make lifestyle politics irrelevant in the grand scheme of things! Your clutter-free house with clean dishes and solar panels on the roof doesn’t do anything to negate the destruction in Alberta or the Yasuni Basin, the fracking disasters, the coastal oil spills (and the inland oil spills), the mining and refining processes necessary to produce your “clean” windmills and solar panels, and the whole host of other industrial projects dictated by capitalism. Lifestyle choices won’t negate the military-industrial complex or the prison-industrial complex, they won’t end the war on [some people who use certain] drugs, they won’t open the borders, they won’t dismantle capitalism or industrial civilization. Ultimately, focusing on your lifestyle choices is a fine start, but at some point, if we really want change, we must directly challenge the systems that seek to dominate and control us on a daily basis.

Make it all happen in your own life, right now. We can’t save the world “out there” with our shiny new conscious cultural values if those cultural values aren’t strong enough to let us thrive in our current living situations.

Yes, make changes in your own life. But what if I don’t want to thrive in my current living situation? What if it’s destructive (to self and others) to do so? A frog might “thrive” in a toxic lake—perhaps even with a few extra appendages—but should we really encourage the frog to thrive in such conditions? Would it not be infinitely more desirable to change the conditions, to negate the toxic environment, to create conditions that are significantly more conducive to thriving? When it comes to prefiguration, perhaps people who view festival cultures as THE vehicle for change have put the cart before the horse.

In other words, “We must be the trouble we wish to see in the world.

Anarchists have long sought to demonstrate the virtues of their vision through prefigurative projects: free food distribution, do-it-yourself health care, collective living arrangements. If only a working model of a better world could be created in microcosm, the thinking goes, everyone who experienced it would become partisans in a revolutionary struggle. Yet in a capitalist society, these experiments can only be carried out at the margins: the dregs making the best of debris.

Meanwhile, at the Googleplex, cafés staffed by world-famous chefs offer healthy organic food in all-you-can-eat buffets. Google employees drop their children off at free day-care, avail themselves of free hairstylists and laundromats, take their pets to work, and play Ping-Pong or volleyball on pristine facilities. After they ride in on the free shuttle or park their electrical cars at the charging station, free scooters wait to convey them from one shining example of sustainable architecture to another; they are encouraged to decorate their workspaces however they wish, and whimsical features ornament the campus, including a tyrannosaur skeleton and a rocket ship. Massage therapists remedy their every complaint; a personal lifeguard watches a single swimmer exercising in a swim-in-place pool the size of a bathtub, with different speed settings for water flow. The brightest luminaries in every field are brought in on a daily basis to present free seminars to which everyone is invited—everyone, that is, who produces enough profit to keep a foothold in this city on a hill, and doesn’t flinch at swimming through a sea of blood to hold onto it.

If corporations can prefigure a world of abundance more effectively than revolutionaries can, what does that tell us about this strategy? Perhaps that the important thing is not to prefigure utopia—which is already available to the winners of the rat race, albeit intramurally—but rather to prefigure the offensive that would render it accessible to all.”

We can collectively dream of worlds that surpass our wildest individual imaginings and bring them into being year-after-year—and we do. Is it really less conceivable that we could take actions in our daily lives to challenge the systems and structures that seek to deny us access to that which we need to survive? By all means, change yourself and your festival culture, but don’t stop there. Unless we act to dismantle the destructive cultural constraints that hold us hostage, our change will never manifest beyond personal revelations and state-sanctioned temporary autonomous zones. We know we are capable of incredible actions; now is the time to focus on ways to break free of the culturally-prescribed containers of festival settings and to build new worlds that truly realize our fundamental needs as human beings.



+5 # Pandora 2014-09-09 19:00
Wow! Thank you SO MUCH for this! Sometimes I think folks forget just how priveledged we are and how much access we enjoy. And, frankly, with almost everyone here being male, young and getting reborn "pink," other blinders pop up too in my opinion. And "here" is similar in many ways to festival community, except The Traveler in his grace and generosity, does not charge us an entrance, parking or camping fee, :P .

What a wonderful wakeup call. Please NEVER shut up, no matter what happens. If not for your voice, certain folks would have been long gone from here.

Thus, I can only imagine, if not for your voice, lots of folks would have been gone from other events and communities I know you organize and attend.

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-8 # will crow 2014-09-14 14:00
the only dismantling going on at these festivals is that of brain cells. taking mind altering drugs that lead to apathy and indifference has no effect on the powers that be except to create a generation of mindless consumers. you can only weaken the mind with LSD and Weed. if you're high, you're not Buddhist, or advanced in your thinking, or anything but high. herding mobs of smelly, unwashed, pretentious children in one place is not a 'movement.' and while it may create a sense on unity for a society moving toward further isolation, it is only a gathering of cows who happen to walk upright.
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+2 # Mustard 2014-09-23 14:36
You clearly know nothing about the chemistry, positive effects and legitimate uses of psychedelics and cannabis. I've been to many gatherings of a conscious kind and am yet to meet these smelly unwashed individuals who claim to be part of such a huge movement. I think you might be attributing your stereotypical idea to actual reality where it is not needed.
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+2 # universecannon 2014-09-10 04:53
Excellent. Hats off to you Dave for telling it like it is :-)
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