Burning Man is not a Meritocracy

Flaming Saucer
A bunch of merit goes up in flames.

Burning Man as a cultural force is getting more interesting, not less, as it gets more mainstream attention and access to discourses about self and society.  (Why yes, “Discourses about Self and Society” WAS a seminar that I took as a sophomore English major.  Why do you ask?)  No major cultural movement travels in a straight line, and no one can tell which aspects of Burner culture will be most challenging, or potentially revolutionary, as it catches on in new cultures and geographies.

The most interesting new challenge I see emerging comes as Burning Man is increasingly attended, referenced, and cited, by both academics and members of the tech industry – work cultures that, in their own ways, claim to be highly driven meritocracies.

Both are increasingly citing Burning Man as a model and a form of inspiration.  And yet Burning Man … fundamentally and unambiguously … is not a meritocracy.  Is, in fact, perhaps our most significant cultural movement at the present time to directly challenge the very idea that a meritocracy is the way we want to order society.

(Why yes, “The Way We Want to Order Society” was a post-graduate seminar I took during the summer for no credit.  Why do you ask?)

This isn’t an explicit challenge, of course:  one of the most interesting (and I’d argue effective) things about Burning Man is precisely that it doesn’t require anyone to sign a loyalty oath when they walk through the gate.  (Unless you count a spanking …)  Burning Man no more “calls out” a meritocracy any more than it calls out industrial pollution.  But just as there’s no question that, taken to their even vaguely logical conclusions, the principles of Burning Man – if followed – would prevent industrial pollution, it’s pretty clear that – if followed – the principles of Burning Man would dismantle the application of meritocracies.

The meritocratic system – in which one’s abilities and drive entitle one to a greater share of social rewards and control – breaks down in a number of ways in a Burning Man context:

  • Without currency, there’s no clear way to keep score.  Let’s admit that society is shallow enough that the only reason it values stock brokers over forest rangers is that stock brokers get lots more money.  Take that away, even imperfectly, and how do you know who has more “merit”?  The teacher or the code warrior?  The CEO or the social worker?
  • Indeed, the very idea that “merit” is an existing thing that ought to be rewarded is itself a kind of commidification:  to the extent that “merit” is a thing that someone can display, and trade for a share of goods and services, it is a commodity.  As has been said a thousand and one times, and will doubtless need to be said a thousand and one more:  Burning Man isn’t “anti-money” – it believes in “decommodification.”  That applies to people, and their attributes, even more than it applies to things.  “Meritocracies” commoditize people quite directly.
  • To the extent that “merit” creates a hierarchy, it is exclusive – while Burning Man is radically inclusive.  It’s one thing to say “you don’t know how to do a job – yet – and so it’s not safe for you to do it.”  It’s another thing to say “you’re not good enough, and so will never get a chance.”  The one is common sense – the other a meritocratic statement that runs counter to the Burning Man grain.  The idea of Radical Inclusion is to dissolve the barriers that keep us apart:  meritocracies exist entirely by putting such barriers up.
  • It’s no accident that the most spectacular applications of the things that meritocracies lionize – competence, vision, drive, talent – when applied in a Burning Man context generally result in a benefit to the community more than the individual.  It doesn’t have to be this way – it’s not a hard and fast rule – but it’s also not an accident.  The values of Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility mean that the fruits of truly spectacular labor bend away from the individual and towards the community as a whole.  A bigger and better theme camp has more to offer the playa, as does a bigger and better art car, or an even more amazing art project.  Nor are any of these things generally accomplished by a lone genius:  instead a whole camp and crew, usually of volunteers, are involved.  This isn’t to say that there might not be a singular genius attached to a project – but he’s not “lone” in any way.  The Burning Man ethos bends (again, there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule here) towards rewarding the guy who keeps the genius’ camp clean and the woman who fixes his generator as much as the guy who stands in the middle and barks orders.  There are, no question, leaders and followers, but the emphasis is clearly on work getting done, on the shared purpose, more than it is assigning credit.
  • Do I even need to talk about gifting in this context?  Do I?  Really?
  • Participation should be similarly obvious, but I think it does need to be pointed out:  a participatory ethos, like a gifting ethos, runs contrary to the hoarding of power than almost any kind of “ocracy” other than a “do-ocracy” (and potentially a democracy) involves.  The whole point of an “ocracy” is to determine who does and does not get to participate at certain levels.  A meritocracy says “take the most capable individual, and put them in charge.”  An ethic of Radical Participation asks:  “How can we get as many people as possible to be meaningfully involved in every aspect of this culture” – including the top jobs.  Whatever benefit you gain from having people who (at least in their own minds) are really extraordinarily capable having exclusive access to leadership positions is outweighed by the fact that the rest of the organization is denied the capacity to participate in a meaningful way.  The idea isn’t that everyone is the same, or equal, or needs to be treated the same way:  but the goal is to eliminate fiefdoms and offer meaningful opportunities to participate at every level.  There will always be leaders and followers, but the privilege of participating as either is never “earned” – it is continuously given, and thus will be fluid, moving up and down:  there’s no reason that today’s general on one project isn’t tomorrow’s private on another.  The fact that so many “meritorious” people have a problem with that … “But I’m too (special/capable/brilliant/precious/important) to be a follower sometimes on something important” … is exactly what makes an ethos of radical participation “radical” to a meritocracy.

But perhaps the deepest challenge to the meritocratic mindset by Burning Man is what the 10 Principles specifically go out of their way not to say.

Nowhere in the 10 Principles, or any official Burning Man literature, does anything ever say what exactly Burning Man is for.  What the desired end result is.  It’s left an open question – and whether that’s post-modernism or pluralism is up to those who care to debate it.  (Why yes, “Post-Modernism or Pluralism” was the title of a paper I turned for Semiotics 405.  Why do you ask?)

This matters because a meritocracy as a system has two justifications.  One is a moral case:  it’s only right that people of greater ability and drive should be given more reward by society.  Burning Man’s 10 Principles explicitly reject that case.  No one has to participate in Burning Man, but for those who do the event and culture is inclusive, participatory, giving, and fluid.  We’re not even sure what “merit” is exactly.

The second case for a meritocracy is that it is efficacious:  that it creates a more efficient system than other options.  The assumption here, often made explicit in the corporate and tech worlds, is that efficiency is always better.  We organize the way we do because efficiency is the goal.

But Burning Man has no explicit goal, and in any case efficiency is not it.  While efficiency is sometimes prized … a faster way to get people in and out of the desert is a goal devoutly to be wished … the very act of putting Burning Man on is, as its critics often point out, radically inefficient.  Surely there is a better use of our time than to build and burn a giant man?

Well … there is surely a more efficient use of our time.  Many of them.  But a *better* use?  Obviously we don’t think so.  Efficiency, while a value, is not an overriding value:  indeed, art and whimsy are arguably some of the least efficient projects on Earth.

If meritocracies are not inherently more moral, and if the efficiency they (allegedly) bring out is not an overriding goal, then the case for meritocracies dissolves.  The existence and success of Burning Man culture is itself an implicit challenge to meritocratic systems.

What’s the implication of this?  I have no idea.  We’re in new territory here.

But let me offer a little speculation.  There is a great deal of criticism in the world today of market-driven consumer capitalism:  it’s seen by many as a spiritually barren wasteland lacking a conscious.  Its defenders generally justify it on meritocratic grounds:  it rewards the able, which is a moral good, and those who do badly deserve to do so.

Part of the appeal of Burning Man across so many cultures may be that if offers a cogent alternative to this meritocratic justification for the world as it is.

Indeed, it may be that one of their reasons Burning Man seems to have such appeal among the academic and tech sectors – which are both, in their own way, hothouses of meritocratic thinking – is precisely that it offers those most trapped in their meritocracies a temporary escape.

But that’s just speculation.  I don’t speak for any of them.

It will be interesting to see, as other areas of culture try to implement Burning Man-like approaches to their own work, how they address Burning Man’s challenge to meritocracy.  When Larry Page called for a “tech Burning Man,” for example, did he have in mind the presence of a fluid hierarchy, the participatory ethos, and the lack of “efficiency” as a governing principle?  Or did he imagine an environment in which an existing hierarchy (justified through merit) is even more able to do what it wants without regard for others involved?

Again, I don’t know.  But there’s a lot riding on the answer.  It may be that the greater challenge that Burning Man poses to the world-as-it-is and its entrenched interests is not the decommodification of money, but the decommidification of people and hierarchy.

Or something we haven’t thought of yet.  It gets more complicated, more interesting, and more unpredictable as it spreads – not less.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the name of a mutation recently discovered by accidentally spilling a pina colada across a map of the human genome.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

23 thoughts on “Burning Man is not a Meritocracy

  • As Burning Man becomes ever more popular, there *is* a meritocratic process in the distribution of tickets though, right? Many people seem to want “big art” (fire, sound, etc) camps to be able to show up, and they need people (and tickets) to make that happen. So the “reward” of tickets *is* going to those with the “merit” of successfully pulling off impactful and enjoyable camps.

    And what about camp placement? You need to have the “merit” of putting together an application (and/or having some sort of track record). Plus, how many camps can be on the Esplanade? How many *want* to be there? Don’t we have to decide that somehow? Why do some camps get preferred placement other than for “merit”?

    For that matter, those who earn merits by volunteering (say, as Rangers), get the reward of Ranger swag, meals, etc. Then there’s First Camp, Center Camp, etc, etc. I don’t know what you would call those if not “rewards” for whatever sort of “merit” is required by participation. Regional Contacts get the reward of access to mailing lists, etc, for whatever merit they needed to have been chosen, and on and on…

    There is a much richer conversation to be had around Burning Man and “meritocracy” that I wish you had explored further. It’s easy to say “oh, we’re something new, there’s no meritocracy here”, and it’s much more interesting to say “the question of how to apportion scarce resources will *always* apply, and here is how Burning Man is dealing with it today. What does that mean for our culture? Is this serving our vision for what we want Burning Man to become? How can we make it better? What does *better* mean to us, anyways? Who decides? Why?”

    We will probably never have any final answers to these questions (and we probably *shouldn’t*), since it is the discussion around them that will keep the Burning Man culture alive and vibrant, especially as Burning Man seeks to maintain cultural cohesion in the face of an ever larger engagement and exchange with Default World culture.

    TL;DR: Burning Man *is* a meritocracy, and we’d better talk more about that if we want to continue keeping Burning Man true to why we all participate.

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  • @RockOn

    You’re essentially saying that a carpenter gets a hammer as a reward for his “merit” in being a carpenter. That is, you’re confusing the tools one needs to do a job with a reward for merit.

    So I would call the things you’re referring to either:

    A) Tools used to get the job done. Or

    B) Attempts by the organizational unit (such as Rangers in the case of Ranger SWAG) to keep esprit decor. Volunteers don’t volunteer if they don’t feel appreciated and have a sense of fun. Sometimes you have to feed them, too.

    But a reward for merit? In six years as a Volunteer Coordinator I never thought of it that way, or heard others express it like that. Burning Man depends on volunteers, but volunteers are not any better, or more meritorious, than anyone else. The idea that they are strikes me, frankly, as pernicious.

    I agree that the question of how to apportion scare resources will always apply (I explicitly said so after tickets sold out the first time): the point is precisely that a sense of merit … you’re a good Burner, you’re a better Burner … isn’t how this gets done. And can’t be, given the values of the culture.

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  • Well, I will grant you that BM is not a traditional meritocracy. But I am amazed to read what you write. You’ve not experienced many things I’ve seen in my decades at the event.

    I like to say that Burning Man has an economy, and it’s not simply a gift economy, but an appreciation economy. You go to appreciate the creativity of others and to have your own creativity appreciated. This is not the only reason you go, but it’s certainly an important component.

    There is no question in my mind that as somebody who has built art installations on the Playa for 15 years, I get stuff I would not get if I hadn’t. People are nicer to me. They gift me more things. When I need something, a network of people exists willing to help. I am not saying that people will not also help a new participant — they will. But there is more given to those who establish themselves.

    One of the early years I did the playa phone, people who used it kept thrusting things at me. Had it been my inclination, I could probably have come to the playa with almost nothing and put signs on the phone, “Camp needs water” or “Artist needs a bike” and all those things would have come. (Of course, instead I massively overprovisioned as always.) But I could have. The project was a gift, I demanded nothing in return, but people want to reward somebody who gifts them, it is in our culture.

    And yes, artists who contribute get other things, including from the org, like better camp placements, access and passes, and things from outside the org like feed-the-artists and party invitations etc. etc.

    So don’t imagine there is no meritocracy there. A more interesting case is to be made about how it’s different from other meritocracies. Most of the world’s meritocracies are not simply cash-capitalism, in fact the term is mostly applied in places where non-money rewards (such as importance and authority and different rules) come to those with merit.

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  • @Brad

    People offering gifts to others is precisely what a meritocracy isn’t. “Thank you” is a statement of appreciation, not of merit.

    There’s no quid-pro-quo – no sense of entitlement or transaction. (Well, maybe entitlement, but some people are assholes.) This is especially true when, as you say, the gift was never asked for … and often would likely be offered to someone who did nothing as well.

    What you’re describing … having access to things as a 15 year contributing artist … is much better viewed as a kind of networking: people giving things to others who they know and are familiar with. That certainly happens at Burning Man (I bring liquor I know my friends will like), but it happens for people others like and know – not for people who have displayed outstanding merit.

    Similarly, Feed the Artists approaches their task with a sense of gratitude (“Hey, thanks for doing these amazing things”) rather than with a sense that they are rewarding the more deserving with food. (They don’t, for example, try to draw a line between good artists and bad artists, or ever suggest that those who aren’t artists don’t deserve to eat.)

    All of which is to say that there are concepts of merit floating around Burning Man, but nobody agrees on what they are, and the behaviors that you and others are ascribing to a meritocracy are in fact better described as local version of other kinds of systems.

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  • The very nature of the directed ticket sales by the org seems to be presented as a meritocracy in the recent documentary SPARK. And I would imagine merit factors into the placement team’s process. Or art grants, isn’t merit considered in awarding grants?

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  • It is good to see you being active in the comments thread, as limited as they are at this time.

    Would you Caveat, say that there is a hierarchy at Burning Man? I would say yes.
    If you do accept that premise, can you imagine that hierarchy can exist without meritocracy? I think the two are inseparable.

    Blanket statement here without substantiation, but there is meritocracy at Burning Man. Any cooperative endeavor where more than one human is involved, merit earns favor. Merit can be measured by multiple parameters.

    Thoughts on this?

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  • @Greg

    A couple of responses …

    First, I think it depends on whether or not you’re talking about “Burning Man” the culture or “Burning Man” the organization. “Burning Man” the culture does not have a hierarchy. “Burning Man” the organization does.

    Many groups that participate in Burning Man have hierarchies, some more reflective of Burner values than others. But the culture as a whole is non-hierarchical.

    The second part of the question, do I imagine a hierarchy can exist without a meritocracy? Absolutely. Most of the time, in fact. There’s nepotism, theocracy, kleptocracy, monarchy, seniority … hell, even democracy isn’t a meritocracy per see. People vote for the person they feel represents them best, not the person they feel is the most accomplished.

    Now one can argue that in every case there is some concept of “merit” that is being followed – that being related to the CEO is a kind of merit, or being electable represents merit, or being a higher ranking ecclesiastical officer represents merit … whether that’s a Catholic Bishop or a reincarnated Tibetan Lama.

    And to the extent that anything can be described as “merit,” that’s correct: but it’s also not useful. If anything can be described as a “meritocracy” then the term ceases to be descriptive. If both a high pressure tech company where promotion is determined by extensive performance reviews and standardized testing, and a union shop where promotion is based on seniority, are “meritocracies,” then the term has lost all meaning.

    Burners as individuals and groups certainly prefer some artists to others, and some camps to others, and some Burners sometimes get to lay some rules down in a way others don’t. But Burner culture as a whole does not attempt to ferret out who the “better” people are, or separate the wheat from the chaff.

    The point of a meritocracy is that only the most talented and capable should be given access to certain things or get certain privileges; many elements of Burner culture … radical including, decommodification, gifting, and participation among them … explicitly reject that approach and go the other way, insisting that everybody be included at every level possible, and that people be treated as unique individuals rather than as a collection of attributes which can be measured.

    As “meritocracy” is used in a practical sense in contemporary America, such as Silicon Valley and academia, Burning Man is not one.

    Hope that clarifies. Feel free to engage – and I appreciate you saying that you don’t mind me responding. Fairly often I feel like, having had a chance to write the post in the first place, it’s ungracious of me to try to mix-it-up in the comments section too.

    – Caveat

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  • Good clarification, good counterpoints, and yeah I was looking at it more on the organizational rather than the cultural angle. That said, based on my experience, I would tend to state that organization is more preeminent than the culture there.

    Personally I love it when a writer mixes it up in the commentaries on any thread not just here. Look at it this way, you are being more personable responding to those your writing has affected to the extent they respond to your concepts and viewpoints.

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  • (A tongue and cheek based comment)
    This conversation reminds me of the 2nd Matrix, where Neo discovers that he is a Program within a Program, (after much energy expended and searching for ‘Why’) … He discovers the Utopia he had been trying to create/save was only his and his ‘crews’ natural inclination, several times over.
    That only an imbalanced ‘system’ is what makes the world turn.
    Thus finally answering the ‘Why’.
    Considering an Utopia would not serve us, but we should definately persue one… For no reason other than we said so. Xo – L

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  • I’ve often described Burning Man as a do-ocracy. Those that do, get to do. Show up and do some stuff and generally people will encourage you to do more stuff. Pretty soon they are relying on you to do it. Then it’s unimaginable that you stop.
    Show up and and insist that you be allowed to do stuff (based on supposed merits) and it doesn’t fly.
    We all love those virgins who hit the playa excited and doing, who return from the event charged up on a koolaid sugar high and start building for the next year, it’s their energy we latch on to to make things happen.

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  • Just a response to this:

    ‘“Burning Man” the culture does not have a hierarchy. “Burning Man” the organization does.’

    I’d say Burning Man the event absolutely does have a hierarchy, and not just among the organization. Who has more status out there, the newbie or the artist? The guy with an art car or the guy with a cool little science demo? A hot sparkle pony or a not so hot sparkle pony? The DPW jocks or ….etc….

    I don’t really see anything wrong with this, it’s just the way it is. Burning Man is a gathering of humans, hierarchies will develop regardless of measures intended to mitigate them. People are drawn to those with something to offer, and at Burning Man the actual event, while it really is about the one-on-one connections made, there’s a greater chance to make those connections when you have something cool to offer, or you’re hot. So, not really any different than the default world, aside from all the free shit available. Ha. Seriously though.

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  • I whole-heartedly agree with this article.

    Those beloved commenters and fellow burners who focus on BMORG, on “insiders” (in whatever sense), on artists with “more stuff”, or on the rich guys who could afford to have a whole amazing art car built for themselves – you are missing the point.

    I am at burning man every year with nothing. I am self-reliant, of course – I’m not a sparkle pony. But to me, getting myself to the playa is the overriding priority and I make it almost every year. So I have no status. Between all those people I meet – and there is a huge number as I walk around and talk to everyone – those with the least “burning man status” if you will are always the happiest. The virgins, the people randomly wandering, or manning some art project for an hour. These are the people who truly get it. Like me, they’re not leeching – they are participating everywhere, as much as they can, they interact, they build up the burning man spirit, the playa spirit.

    On the other hand, those people I meet with “inside” knowledge, the inner circle of (whatever), the freaking DPW, they’re always the ones that least get it; they enjoy of course, but they’re also the ones prone to complain or focus on the negative. Or come up with bizarre BMORG conspiracy theories.

    I plan on staying an absolute beginner, forever. This is the way. And there is no merit. Your enjoyment of this event is in no way related to your ability to “do stuff” – with the one exception of getting into a playa state of mind, which means letting go of all, and knowing yourself.

    If it wasn’t like that, then burning man would not be what it is. If it was all about how much you created, or how much visible effort you put into things, then burning man would really be just that “art festival in the desert” that we read about in newspapers. Everyone who’s been there knows though that it’s so much more.

    One issue I see is that a lot of what society sees as “merit” is actually willingness to do things you don’t want to do. Spend 80 hours a week in the office, for the good old “hard work, earnest rewards” kind of illusions. And what has it got us – since I was born more than 3 decades ago, “efficiency” and “productivity” has been on the rise. Yet people work more, worry about money more, and enjoy less than back then. The system is wrong. It does not deliver on its promise. Simple as that.

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  • Can’t we all just get along?!

    I like The 10 Principles a lot.

    I like Meritocracies a lot.

    This article seems to pit one against the other by attacking a small army of straw men. You pick example after example of something “bad” that is possible under a meritocracy, then paint a meritocracy as if it is the sole and necessary progenitor of said badness. It would be as if someone wrote a several page article describing the Evils of Burning Man as the place where people die, where they have bad drug trips, where they are raped and arrested (not necessarily in that order) and suggesting that “our way” (some way that’s not Burning Man) is better, because we don’t embrace those values.

    It’s ironic that one so steeped in radical inclusion can’t find a way to include the values of a meritocracy and all the goodness that comes from it nor, by implication, find a way to include those who hold such values.

    Why must a meritocracy be terrible for Burning Man to be wonderful? Why must there be contempt for Corporate largesse for Burning Man to enjoy de-commodification? (I’m not talking about greed, theft, pollution, fraud or other Evils that exist both in corporate America and at Burning Man — I’m just talking about plain old “folks doing what they enjoy doing without hurting anyone” stuff.)

    “Can’t we all get along?”

    “Sure, so long as you think exactly as I do (including my hard-and-fast rules for the ways that you’re allowed to think differently.)”

    That’s not what I asked. What I asked was: “can’t we all just get along?”

    The world would be a better place if Burning Man could divest itself from the “us vs them” mindset.

    Peace.

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  • @JV

    A “preference” isn’t the same thing as a hierarchy. I can order chicken instead of beef today without having a hierarchy of foods, and I can want to spend time with Wendy today rather than Bob without having a hierarchy of friends. The fact that Burners have preferences doesn’t mean Burning Man is hierarchical.

    If we had a hierarchy, we’d have a clear sense that someone who has an art car is better than someone who has an art project, who is superior to someone who runs a theme camp, etc. etc.. Some Burners may have that hierarchy, but that’s personal and there’s nothing in the culture to demand it.

    @Olie

    I didn’t say Meritocracies are bad – I said that Burning Man isn’t one. Just because we like something doesn’t mean it’s synonymous with Burning Man. I like monarchies, but that doesn’t mean Burning Man has a Prince Regent. Saying “Can’t we all just get along?” isn’t actually a response to “Burning Man’s principles and culture are not meritocratic.”

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  • I found this radically thought-provoking – the first idea in a long time that’s challenged my own certainties on the benefits of meritocracy. Any debate I’ve had on this has generally stalemated at a capitalism vs. socialism level, with the conclusion that you either consider human beings can (or should) transcend their animal nature, or not. In that sense, meritocracy is just darwinism applied to economics: pure and simple survival of the fittest. You may choose meritocracy as the least worst option: communist regimes are appealing utopias, but they haven’t worked in practice, mainly because they ended up annihilating individual free will. Democratic systems (or capitalism, or meritocracy, which are almost synonymous) have thrived, and will continue to, precisely because free will and animal instinct are at their core: the whole system is based on competition – in markets, politics, etc. Those who want power and control over their own destiny will be motivated to use their talents and compete with others to get it.

    The beauty of Burning Man is that it does away with competition altogetheretc, and therefore meritocracy. There’s rivalry, sure, and hierarchy, and all the things that have been discussed in your post and the comments, but no competition. It also does away almost entirely with economics: as you say quite rightly, no more commodification. So while Burning Man and communism have this in common that they are based on the idea of a utopian commune or community, Burning Man succeeds in motivating people to do “stuff” because its end objective is not economics – unlike communism, which seeks to reorganize the balance of power between labour and capital, and ends up oppressing people and forcing them to do “stuff” they haven’t themselves chosen to in the process. The ultimate objective of Burning Man is simply to create a community that continuously enchants itself – it’s incredible amounts of work and effort, but the personal satisfaction, the appreciation of your own and others’ efforts and the fact that everyone is doing the same is the motivating factor underlying the “do-ocracy” as @Brad points out.

    The question remains though: can you turn this into a broader societal model? The sad truth is that it takes a lot of money to participate in Burning Man – living in Black Rock City is a privilege of the rich – those who have in large part mastered the meritocratic systems in which we live. I can’t see how we could run the US on a gift economy, or enchantism, for example.

    My conclusion, sadly, is that Burning Man will continue to be a “mere” source of inspiration for academics, tech executives, and the rest of us: there’s simply no alternative to living most of our lives in default reality, and meritocracy continues to be the lesser evil there – all we can do is try to integrate some of the Burning Man values and experiences to make it more bearable in the day-to-day.

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  • I think a key thing people tend to forget about Burning Man is that is not an economy. Economies deal with distribution of *scarce* resources. Burning Man, for many reasons, is designing a post-scarcity culture.

    The reason we give so much is that we have a lot to give. The reason we have a lot to give (at the root) is that surviving in the desert *requires* overestimating your needs, because those needs can change suddenly and even potentially dangerously.

    Well, that, and, to be completely fair, because a significant fraction of our participants have accumulated a *lot* of resources through the operation of the default world’s meritocracies (such as they are).

    Meritocracies are important when you have to allocate scarce resources (including labor), because those who are able to produce more with less make *everyone’s* lives better when they have more influence over how things are produced.

    But it’s extremely important to develop an ethos and culture that can deal with post-scarcity, because our basically capitalistic world faces a great challenge as productivity increases through technological innovation: (human) labor will eventually become non-scarce.

    I know, I know… this has been predicted before many times, and it’s never come to pass. Those displaced workers will learn new skills and be employed in higher productivity jobs. But this can’t continue to grow exponentially without destroying the planet, and frankly there are limits to how far human beings will be able to “improve” through training in a reasonable amount of time. And also frankly: we only need so much, and going too far beyond that is actually pretty miserable.

    Automation will do a lot of things for the world, but it brings a danger, which is how do we ensure that everyone has access to the resources they need to live when they aren’t needed for the production of those resources? In a sense, capitalism does contain the seeds of its own destruction if we can’t find a way to deal with this problem, because those people will become desperate.

    Now, one could take a very grim view on the situation and say: automation will run into a barrier once 25% of the workforce has nothing useful to contribute to production of things people need, because it will be increasingly costly to replace workers when there are so many ex-McDonalds employees willing to do menial tasks for starvation wages. Humans are the cheapest automation you can imagine: self-reproducing, and can survive on a dollar or two a day of beans and rice while cowering ten-to-a-hovel.

    But I’m not that pessimistic. Instead, I think we need to look to Burning Man, and see that — even when there are haves and have nots (as we definitely see even in our culture) — we don’t have to treat them that way, and eventually being a “have” doesn’t help you live a fulfilling life by itself.

    Everyone has something interesting (and fun) to contribute, even if it doesn’t advance production in this future world. Greed is only important when you need it to survive. When you have more than you need, giving is far more important than having, and taking is ultimately destructive to your soul.

    A post-scarcity world *will* become post-meritocracy. The only choice we have is whether it’s by evolution or revolution. I far prefer the former.

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  • 1) Currency is not the only form of reward
    2) The article claims “you’re not good enough, and so will never get a chance” as being “a meritocratic statement.” This is massively far from the truth. And hierarchy is not inherently exclusive.
    3) “A bigger and better theme camp has more to offer the playa” is not necessarily true. Many of the biggest contributions to Burning Man I have been a part of have been the smaller, dedicated, hard-working and talented teams.
    4) Meritocracy isn’t just about efficiency. This article makes many flawed assumptions in order to prop up it’s anti-meritocratic argument with straw man attacks.

    Clearly the article writer loves Burning Man and is not a fan of meritocracy. Not all of us share this person’s views. Meritocracy isn’t necessarily about “hoarding power” as they claim. Meritocracy, in many ways, is the opposite. Power is fluid and can go to anyone who can accomplish or create. The beauty of this is that it inspires people to learn how to do things, it doesn’t shut them down. Burning Man has a great deal of evidence of this.

    Furthermore, do not confuse capitalism with meritocracy. They share many features, but it’s possible to have meritocracy without capitalism.

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  • There appears to be some confusion in this whole discussion, caused by different concepts that are all being thrown under one word: meritocracy.

    Originally, the -cracy extension refers to kratos, the greek word for power.
    Giving decision power to people that have previously proven, through meritorious acts, that they can do something useful with that power, makes perfect sense, and it is exactly what the organisation does, and should do, internally.

    The confusion comes with the implicit assumption that power and reward go hand in hand, as they will when power comes with greed. If your primary motivation is greed, and you get given power, then the first thing you do will be to reward yourself more greatly. It is this behaviour that most people despise, except for those who are motivated by greed, and hope that they too will be in a position of power one day.

    There is no word for this concept, but in a mirror image of the word plutocracy (those who have wealth, gain power), I would consider using the word cratoplousy (those who have power, gain wealth).

    In our society in the desert, we have largely disconnected reward from power. When it comes to dividing scarce resources, such as esplanade placement, early entry, commissary access, we tend to give those resources to those we believe, based on previous experience, or impressive plans, would make best use of them.
    So here, the power and the wealth are entirely disconnected, but we do get a distribution of some form of wealth (scarce resources) based on merit. Again, I believe this is as it should be.

    The original article, and a lot of the comments appear to agree, conceptually, that dividing power based on competence (meritocracy) is a good idea.
    Everyone also appears to agree that division of resources based on merit is a good idea (meritoplousy, if you like).
    Likewise, most comments appear to agree that division of resources based exclusively on power (kratoplousy) is a bad idea. From this perspective, one might even question the placement of first camp.

    Another pair of considerations in our division of resources in the desert appears to be need (I just know Ayn Rand woud have called me evil for that), and undesirability of the work being done.
    In the case of need, one can imagine DPW being fed in the commissary, so the workers can spend more time working, and less time preparing food for themselves.
    In the case of undesirability of the work being done, one might note that gate is fed during their shifts, but greeters are not.

    On a final note on democracy: the most simplistic form would have every one member of ‘the people’ involved in every decision. In order to achieve good decisions, that would require that every person that gets to vote is well informed about every topic.
    In a more practical version of democracy, the people elect a leader, based on the perceived merit of that leader, and then give the leader power to make decisions for them.

    A democratic safeguard in any power system is the ‘veto’, originating in ancient rome. The word veto is latin for ‘I forbid’, giving the directly elected representatives of the people the opportunity to forbid any action the ruling power considered taking. This function protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority. At the same time, this function forces the ruling power to explain their plans and actions well enough to satisfy said representatives. I do not believe we have an equivalent in the organisation of our dusty event, but it might be good to have such a thing, even if we are not inclined to make our society directly democratic. (It’s current meritocratic form seems to be doing quite nicely, thank you very much.)

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  • Great stuff to think about. I want to underscore all Dreamweaver’s great points – especially the fact that BM does not qualify as an economy.

    Further: The problem with capitalistic meritocracy is not so much that it commodifies people and rewards some more than others, but that it externalizes people who can’t (or won’t) be commoditized.

    BM doesn’t do that. We don’t kick the sparkleponies out of camp when they don’t perform to our expectations. We might fantasize about it, but we don’t send them out into the desert to die. Instead, we feed them – not liking it necessarily, but we do it. And then if they want to learn to use the power tools, we show them. And in the long run, given the reality that collectively we do have resources to spare, I think our way creates a lot more ex-sparkleponies than the meritocracy does.

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  • I really appreciate the depth this conversation has reached… My original reaction to the article was that it overlooked reality in favor of the ideals that we Burners like to preach. Reading through the comments though made me really evaluate the definitions of the words I have used for years in both my praises and critiques burning man. It also made a clear delineation between the ORG and the culture- there is obviously a lot of cross talk between the two, but it’s good to be reminded that they are not, and don’t need to be the same in in the ways they are organized, managed way, or appreciated.

    I also loved the comment that challenged the idea that doing more (volunteering, building, dreaming of new art) brings us closer to understanding the true purpose of what burning man is “about”… It is easy to start falling down the rabbit hole of it being something different for each of us of course, but I think we all have known people who go to Working Man each year. While I would never say these people are doing it wrong, i will say that the years I’ve done as much as i could to do (in terms of time and effort spent on camp, art, logistics , etc ) have not been the years that brought me the most connection to the soul of this odd thing that has been a major shaping factor of my life for the last 12 years.

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  • I love how the event is a petri dish – we can keep throwing new ingredients (or at least thematic twists) into a fresh-ish dish every year.

    But the idea of non-playa organizations trying to claim any of the 10 is the real frontier. Which cultures can survive out in the wasteland of corporate power-begets-power world beyond BRC? Aside from some events embracing Leave No Trace, I’m not aware of any serious attempts to use BMan rules in communities or worlds where they are ALL about their desired outcomes, such as profit.

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