Ever since I listened to a presentation about Hakim Bey’s Anarchist philosophy at O.Z.O.R.A. festival, I’ve been quite fascinated by the idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone. Hakim Bey is a quite controversial philosopher even in hardliner Anarchist circles, due to his preoccupation with the idea of pederasty, and his occasional rants praising illiteracy; even still, in my eyes his writings on the TAZ are fundamental to building livable systems of human cohabitation, at least temporarily free from the total alienation and commodification culture of consumer society.
As the ideator of Nonviolent Communication, Marshal Rosenberg put it, while we’re all raised with the commandment to be “good”, our reward for being “good” is depression. One suppresses one’s own desires and bliss, the very reason one might want to live for, and alienated society simply cannot provide the “good”, self-denying person with any outcomes that are worthy to pursue, and thus one falls into a state of demotivation and depression. This is a truth I have experienced many times over, and the solution I found was to find my bliss in alternative society, a society of hope.
I urge everyone interested to read Hakim Bey’s own writings on the topic; in short, the Temporary Autonomous Zone is a small event, place or social structure that exists outside mainstream society, as a separate culture and set of social norms, hidden and protected through its insignificance to the outside world, and to what Hakim Bey terms The Spectacle. On a sabbatical around freegan communities and open eco-farms, I’ve finally come to see the principle of the TAZ living and working in reality. Even now I’m writing this article sitting among hippies, ‘pirates’ and goatherds, in a location that in my former, urban life believed only exists in stories and films. A location with the sword of Damocles dangling above its head for years now, yet still living on and thriving. And that sword of Damocles is, unfortunately, unavoidable. According to theory, the Temporary Autonomous Zone is necessarily ephemeral. With time it grows, and as the outside world, The Spectacle takes notice, it needs to voluntarily disband before the forces of repression descend upon it in various forms.
What he writes much less about is what comes after. Most festivals start out as a TAZ of sorts, a small group, much like ancient band societies, coming together to celebrate. They cannot, however, stay that way for long. The O.Z.O.R.A. Festival, a psychedelic cultural event in Eastern Europe with more than 50 thousand participants every year, is no Temporary Autonomous Zone, no matter how some may want to make it look like one. Its last claim to the title ended years ago, when police descended on it in a massive raid, and its continued existence could only have been assured through a lucrative contract with the security firm owned by the Minister of Internal Affairs himself. It’s no TAZ, but the mummified corpse of one, dressed for the grave with mugs of chai sold for 5 Euro each, and (faux) Nepalese clothing overpriced 3-5 fold.
Now the question is whether that makes the festival unworthy of attention, or an event of a lower order, and it is my strong opinion that the festival, while heavily commodified, taken over by the Spectacle, and sold as a canned-and-sterilized uprising for the tired office worker, definitely has its place in the world as a learning ground and an embassy for alternative society, for the Web of Temporary Autonomous Zones. It was, for me, the first exposure, and an experience in immediacy, a gateway toward finding my way to communities one can never find or connect with through Facebook Search.
The Rainbow Gatherings, a surviving stream of the original hippie movement from the 1960s, choose a different approach. Gatherings are intentionally limited in time, and locations where a periodic gathering has grown too well known, too large, and too damaging to the local systems, are intentionally abandoned forever. Keeping with TAZ theory, the Gathering is temporary in one place, but the chain of Gatherings is unbroken, and the movement, the Rainbow Family of Living Light, has held up and thrived throughout the disillusionment of the 1980s and the capitalistic hurrah of the 1990s and early 2000s. The Gatherings have serious issues however, relating to their Anarchistic way of (non)governance, and a reach too large for optimal functioning as a true band society, something people often complain about, but the only proposal to handling it had been smaller, more remote and less public Gatherings.
What I find quite unique about the Burn is that it has taken a different approach. The controversies about some practices of “BMOrg”, the non-profit behind the original Burning Man gathering in Black Rock Desert notwithstanding, the philosophy of the Burn took a separate, and quite noteworthy path. Most burns start out small, as true Temporary Autonomous Zones; Burning Man itself started out as one; however, their growth and reach necessitates a level of integration with outside society that eventually removes most TAZ characteristics. The really noteworthy thing, compared to the Festival, is the specifics of how this happens.
Contrary to the Festival, the Burn doesn’t invite in the Spectacle and the systems of the outside world. There are no outside security forces checking cars, nor profiteering landlords growing rich on 5 Euro chai and 300 Euro entry tickets. The Burn becomes an alternative society, creating a tribe government capable of maintaining security and order to a level where the outside world is content leaving its hand off the event. Burns tend to have low or no police presence, due to the highly professional volunteer force of Rangers, who have over the years kept injuries, deaths and similar incidents low, and due to the principle of Leaving No Trace, a strict and quite literal approach to leaving the environment in just as clean and untouched a state as we arrived in.
Now this means, of course, that the Burn is no longer Anarchistic. It is governed, it has strict rules, it maintains close ties with the outside world in order to maintain its existence and safety, it even has a “policing” force of its own. Which, in a way, is a logical and necessary result of its size and reach. As the Rainbow Gathering struggles to maintain its standards of ecological and societal awareness due to sizes unsuitable for ancient band society governance based on consensus, the Burn faced the same issue, and moved to the next level of governance, that of the Tribe.
Through the tribal government of the Burn itself, with codified rules and roles, the smaller unit of Burning, the Theme Camp, is capable of maintaining a more informal, consensus-based governance suited to its size, while being part of a Web of similar micro-societies in the overall tribe society of the Burn itself, allowing for some form of a Temporary Autonomous Zone to come into being and exist within the manageable family unit of people living, eating and sleeping together.
The Burn is often derided for its perceived break with Anarchist ideals, and apparent marriage with Silicon Valley culture and money-flinging billionaires. However, while maintaining that all such criticism of Burning Man is, to a level, warranted and important, the Burn itself, as a model of alternative society, has succeeded in something few experiments have reached before. I’m quite excited for the future of the movement, regardless whether Black Rock City and BMOrg continues on this route, or will be forced to compromise on their ideals. The Burn, as a model, has already strewn its seeds across the globe, and is growing and multiplying.