I discovered a huge, supportive, loving community focused on self-expression, pleasure, tolerance, and art. Burners didn’t consider the exploration of consciousness to be marginal or worthless. Most understood it as a crucial expression of human freedom. As a New Yorker, I had no idea that the psychedelic counterculture on the West Coast had evolved in such spectacular style since the Acid Test days. The festival was an initiation, in itself. It was challenging to survive in that high desert, scorching hot during the days, frigid at night. The fact that everyone had to endure the elements was part of the journey. We had all chosen, intentionally, to experience this near-emergency. This brought us together and bonded us.
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit this, but in the development of my personal political philosophy, Black Rock City holds a place that for me is as crucial as the Paris Commune of 1870 was for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. “Working men's Paris, with its Commune,” Marx enthused, "will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society." Although the French government stamped out the revolution, executing thousands, Marx went on to write many books - proving it is safer to be an armchair revolutionary than the fighting-in-the-streets kind.
The essential political insight I took from Burning Man was our capacity to reorganize society around principles quite different from the ones we have now. We can create a post-postmodern civilization where the pursuit of joy, art, ecstasy, play, and spiritual communion were central to its purpose. I believed a rapid global awakening was possible - and Burning Man pointed the way. Reinventing our fragile world as a collective art project, we apply our technical genius and media savvy to liberate our human family, as a whole, from pointless suffering, destructive habits, and outmoded belief systems.
Naively, I assumed that everyone at Burning Man understood that the festival was simply a prelude - a rehearsal for the main event. We were testing out the principles and ethos of a liberated society that at some point we would spread across the world rapidly. Eventually, we would engineer a metamorphosis of our civilization, recreating it through the crucible of the imagination.
But suddenly, that night in 2005, I saw Burning Man's celebratory spectacle, for the first time, as an artificial paradise distracting us from the somber reality we needed to confront. Those with the awareness and ability to change the world were caught in a hall of mirrors - a subtle trap. Burning Man was a temporary autonomous zone, a beautiful desert mirage. It showed us what was possible, but it diverted our energy from the hard work of changing the system - from confronting the powers that be, in the real world. What it promoted was cultural rebellion, not social transformation. Burning Man had turned into a culture of its own, which made people obedient and complacent.
Enraged, I rode my bike to the Center Cafe. Inside, a large band of San Francisco hipsters was playing - drumming, banjo-ing, tooting horns - to a fervent, gyrating crowd. I jumped on the stage and took the microphone from the MC - a stylish impresario known for his Steampunk couture, white top hat, and improbably long beard. Everyone was startled. The band stopped. I was already a well-known figure at the festival. A day before, I had given a talk to several hundred people in the large geodesic dome of the Palenque Norte camp, as part of their speaker series. Some of my audience was in the crowd.
I began to rant, semi-coherently, about Katrina, as well as the larger ecological, geopolitical emergency confronting our species. I noted that many of us had been coming to Burning Man for many years to celebrate, to party - I said we had partied enough. Now we can do something else together that might be equally fun: Establish a sound foundation for a new sociopolitical order. Some of the crowd listened attentively. Some booed. Various attempts were made to get me off of the stage so the band could resume. I ignored them.
Finally, Paradox - a well-known San Francisco performer in the Bay Area - convinced me to give up the mic. We went to sit outside together, in the dust. I was still enraged. I grabbed him repeatedly, pulling his hair. This was the unlikely beginning of a great friendship. As I spoke with him, still high as a kite, I hatched an ambitious plan.
I proposed that we stop the festival's annual crescendo - the burning of the Man on Saturday, followed by the immolation of the Temple on Sunday. Instead, we would invite the Burning Man community to stay in the desert for a few extra weeks while we drafted a planetary constitution together and built a social network and media platform to support the rapid transition to a regenerative, post-Capitalist society. There were, I knew, so many brilliant people attending the event, leaders in many fields, from software to pop music to finance to law. Katrina was our opportunity to seize. Katrina had revealed the planetary emergency in microcosm. We would use the disaster to tap the community's genius in a focused and organized way.
I saw it all in a flash. One group of Burners - legal experts, software engineers, social scientists, anthropologists, financial analysts, workers at NGOs, and more - would gather at the Center Cafe each day, to design and build the prototype for a new social infrastructure through a cooperative, consensus process. This networking platform would include tools for democratic decision making, sharing resources, and alternative instruments for exchanging value, designed to first complement and then supersede the current money system. Another group of Burners - filmmakers, journalists, poets, and artists - would document the unfolding process as we wrote the planetary constitution, demanding a world based on ecological and social justice, equality, peace, and righteousness. Rather than making incremental and fitful progress, humanity as a whole would make a sudden forward leap.
Around the Temple, the spiritual community of Burning Man - meditators, yogis, alchemists, Sufis, kabbalists, Wikkans - would gather in a circle for a 24-hour-a-day ceremony in which they would visualize, meditate, and bring down the imprint for the new planetary culture - currently hovering above us, somewhere, in the starry night. Rock musicians, DJs, opera singers, and other performers would play at the Man - a concert continuing around the clock, live-streamed to the outside world.
I assumed the wealthier Burners would happily donate tens of thousands of dollars apiece to have food and water trucked in from Reno, supporting this crucial process. Property would be collectivized, so people wouldn't have to waste any valuable time. Instead of having to look for your bicycle in a thicket of bicycles, for instance, you could grab any available ride. Rather than returning to your camp, you could catch a snooze in any nearby trailer. We would be living the revolution as we created it - we would be co-creating the New Now.
As I hatched it, I thought this plan had tremendous PR potential. We would perform revolution as a conceptual art performance piece in real-time. I imagined our pitch to the world's media: The community of countercultural hedonists, hippies, druggies, geeks, and Silicon Valley millionaires are making a stand, taking charge of the planet's future, at a time of ongoing war in the Middle East, corporate malfeasance, natural disasters, and climate meltdown.
At first we would be mocked. But soon, the press - the global audience - would stop ridiculing us. They would grasp that this was the only way that massive social change could happen - from the dusty margins, the radical fringe. Once we built and launched our new peer-to-peer network for direct democracy and our open-source media platform promoting spiritual gnosis, equitable sharing of the Earth's resources, and the evolution of consciousness, everybody on Earth would jump on board. I figured the whole process might take six months, give or take. By then, we would have even George Bush, Vladimir Putin, the Bilderberg elite, the Koch Brothers, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, the Sunni Imams and Shiite Ayatollahs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Chinese Premier solidly on our side. We would sit down together to work things out, pausing for sessions of MDMA-assisted group therapy when necessary.
For the next two days, I didn't sleep as I sought to execute my plan. I raced from Burning Man camp to camp, trying to form alliances, building a cadre of volunteers. At one New York camp, Disorient - an established Burning Man brand, known for its bright orange costumes and digitally sequenced flashing strobe lights - I knocked a bottle of champagne out of one of the organizer's hands, pissing him off as it dribbled fizz into the dust.
"Haven't you done enough partying over the years?" I yelled at him. When they told me to leave, I lay down on the ground in protest. A few members of Disorient dragged me out of the camp by my feet. I found it ludicrous that they would drag me across the dust, from one blank spot to another - as if the camp ground was real real estate.
I gathered about twenty-five people together at my camp, Entheon Village, seeking to inspire them with my vision. Humoring me, friends as well as new conscripts took on the roles of lieutenants and subcommandants in a ragged, jester army. As it became clear we didn't have the momentum we would need to stop the burning of the Man, my revolutionary project fizzled out.
A big dream for the world - however foolish or futile - leaves lingering embers in its wake. Tiny incandescent sparks. I learned so much from this embarrassing enterprise - whether blind alley or foreshadowing, I am still not sure. For a few delusional hours, I felt something similar to what a member of the Jacobin Club must have felt in 1789. I was convinced it was really happening. "Action is the only reality,” the Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman once realized while on LSD: Like a whiteboard swiped clean, our social reality can be entirely recreated and reinvented, given the proper circumstances and poetic serendipity.