The New Yorker
January 13, 2014
by Lizzie Widdic
As 2013 wound to a close and dismal year-end assessments poured in on the performance of the Obama Administration—the N.S.A. surveillance scandal, the botched Obamacare rollout—the President was looking for idea men. His move was to fly in a cadre of brainy Silicon Valley types. But he might have also dropped by Harlem, where a fund-raiser for the Burning Man Project, the nonprofit spinoff of the annual arts festival and bacchanal in the Nevada desert, had taken on a chin-stroking air. “You know what I’m really interested in?” Larry Harvey, the festival’s founder, said, in his remarks onstage. “Governance.”
Burning Man is no Model U.N., but as a congregation of self-appointed outliers in silly hats it was a forerunner of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The festival began in 1986, when Harvey and friends burned a generic human-shaped effigy on the beach in San Fransisco, but in recent years it has acquired an establishment vibe, in part because of its role as a laboratory for social organization. This year, it attracted sixty-eight thousand people, who lived for a week in a tent-trailer-and-motor-home civilization, which has its own gift economy (there is no money allowed, except for buying coffee and ice), airport, law enforcement, emergency services, and electric grid.
Harvey spoke about the festival's global ambitions. Burning Man is guided by what initiates call the Ten Principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. These ideas, Harvey suggested, might one day form the basis of a new world order: Burners have helped revitalize downtown Las Vegas and met with members of the Australian government. "We're planning for a hundred years," Harvey told the crowd. "If we can govern the way we want, then what we've all experienced"—at Burning Man—"will become a very common experience." He concluded that "when the world comes to a crisis—and we know it's coming"—that's when the Burner knowledge will come in handy.
But what wisdom could our government take from Burning Man right now? The fund-raiser was held at a swanky converted church owned by a man named Michel Madie. "I'm a healer," said Madie, who had a white goatee and wore a top hat with a peacock feather. "My work is soul boxing." He is also a successful real-estate broker, whose firm handles hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales. Madie said he would not advise the federal government to adopt a gift economy. "The idea that Burning Man is anti-capitalist is totally incorrect," he said. "You have to have a pretty hefty amount of money to go there and enjoy it. I think capitalism is promotion of self, and so is Burning Man."
Marceau Guerin, a Ph.D. student researching tree physiology at Columbia, said, "To Obama, I would say, 'Come have a look.' It's about the crazy hidden part of people." Matt Goldberg, the former C.E.O. of Lonely Planet, said, "It's about change. I first went out in 2003—he was working in corporate development at the Wall Street Journal. "I came back with renewed energy about how to innovate." A man named Earth offered Obama reflections he'd picked up on the playa: "Talk more to strangers. Truly think that anything is possible." He explained that Earth is his given name—Earth Bennett—and that by day he's a pharmaceutical-ad salesman. When it came to Obamacare, the writer Julia Allison offered a bit of advice: "If people took self-reliance"—one of the Ten Principles—"as a central tenet of health, we'd have people taking really good care of themselves. Since I've been to Burning Man, I haven't gotten sick."
Nina Urban, a psychiatrist at Columbia, does brain experiments on what she calls "party drugs." She said, "I divide the Burning Man population into five subgroups: hippies, raver kids, true artists who want to build something they could not build otherwise, and the technologists who roll in for a few days from the Bay Area. The last group is the one I belong to: the costumers, who want to express themselves by dressing up. Her boyfriend, Jim Glaser, who goes by the name Costume Jim, is the head of Kostume Kult, a group that is a leading participant in SantaCon—the annual parade of drunk people in Santa outfits. Costume Jim shook his head and said, "It grew beyond what we could control."
This served as a reminder: Burning Man doesn't have all the answers when it comes to social organization. The festival is plagued by the same problems that plague American society. In recent years, regulars have complained about the influx of rich celebrities—Sean (Diddy) Combs—and tech-world fat cats: the Winklevoss twins attended, and Mark Zuckerberg choppered in for a day.
An artist named Eric (Knuckles) Forman said that he was over Burning Man. "I'm someone who goes and loves it and then hates it," he said. "And every time I think I'm done with it, it pulls me back."