The Burning Man festival is incredibly fun. It is a week long party for those who wish to experiment – or sit back and witness others experimenting – with costume wearing, various vices, extreme games, nakedness, art, architecture, and temporary community. Every year, forty or fifty thousand people from around the world converge on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to create a temporary city made up of tents, RV’s, makeshift shade structures and other interesting living quarters. There is even a unique urban plan that uses a giant wooden man as its center. The city is set up in a semi-circle with streets shooting straight out from the man, named after the hours on a clock, and perpendicular streets running, on a semi-circular path, across the “time” streets which are named after the letters in the English alphabet. All of this lasts only one week for the majority of attendees. True, there are meet-up events throughout the year and charity organizations that have sprouted from the festival itself, but for the vast majority of “Burners” it is a one-week experiment. It is temporary.
It may sound as if this is simply a party, but all it takes is a brief conversation with a “Burner” to understand that there is a deeper culture behind it. First of all, art is essential to the experience. Beautiful sculptures to climb and view are everywhere. The focal point of the city (aside from the giant wooden man, ready to burn at the end of the festival) is the art. Installations line the center of the city, known as the Playa, and various pieces find their way around the more residential areas. Without a doubt the culture is alternative. People wear costumes and sometimes wear nothing at all with the knowledge that this is a space for revealing and basking in the hidden identities that can’t come to work, school and home with most Burners. Snacks, fun, and booze are considered gifts. No money is exchanged there (the exceptions are coffee and ice which are sold by the organizers at the center of the city). The only way to acquire the things one may need or want is to be given them. Simultaneously, experienced Burners speak of radical self-reliance as the essence of the culture. One is expected to bring enough food, water, shelter, and anything else to last them in the harsh climate. These are the bases for the Burner culture: art, gifts, radical self-reliance, and truth to self. But again, for the vast majority of people who identify as Burners, it is a temporary community: a once a year experience.
Temporary community is not inherently bad or negative. As a radically experimental and alternative space, it does run the risk of acting as an outlet for radicalism, allowing an annual release rather than focusing those energies on more permanent alternatives that might have a greater impact beyond its spatial and temporal borders. Still, it is not necessarily bad. It is just not a permanent community, which might have the potential to shift the holistic understanding that one has of self and community when identifying as a Burner. Temporary community does allow for space and time to learn new things, meet new people, and experience new modes of living, but at the end of it all, one goes back to his or her “real” life; the costumes, art, and dancing get hung up for another year. For the vast majority of Burners the Burning Man community leaves their lives when they walk away from the Black Rock Desert and only returns for a precious few vacation days each year. There are many people who might criticize this assessment as showing a lack of understanding of the essence of Burning Man or who would call this outlook cynical. It is true that the Burner community is permanent for some (members of various year-round Burning Man related organizations), and for this reason Burning Man may be seen by some as holding all the elements of a permanent community. However, for the majority of Burners the “temporary” label most likely does apply.
The study that follows delves into the issue of permanence and community through an exploration of the tensions between community and the presently more dominant idea of the state, and the ongoing balancing act between freedom and security. It will become clear that the state, as a way of organizing a society, can only be a positive force if it is built from the ground up; the state needs to be made up of communities. As well, freedom and security are human needs that can exist together in community life. Communities that are based on harmonious mutual responsibility and have permanent frameworks can work together to create a world that reflects that responsibility in the way humans interact.
There are two pairs of elements that make up community. The first two elements are seen in the form that a community takes on, which is dictated by its framework and its internal structure. The framework of a community can be described as the lines (sometimes dotted) that define a community as unique from another community. An example of such uniqueness might be a neighborhood, an ethnicity, an idea, or an interest. Internal structure is best described as the relationships, systems, or understandings that occur within a community. These include the governance and decision-making arrangements and a community’s systems of communication and economy. So the framework acts as a sort of border for defining a community. This border can be a physical border, but it is actually found in the collective identity that is shared by a community. A neighborhood’s borders may be clear, but it is the shared experiences, traditions, etc. that actually give meaning to the community’s bond. The internal structure, on the other hand, acts as the links and relationships that exist within a community. Democratic governance, socialized care for the elderly, and Internet forums are all examples of internal structures.
The second pair of elements that make up community are the building blocks of collective identity that binds a community together. These are the culture and education of a community. Culture can be seen here as the traditions, practices and rituals that people engage in together in shared space such as Sabbath meals and festivals, common language, and interests that are held in common. The education that is focused on within a community is the perpetuation of a community’s culture. Education passes culture on to the next generation. If a community celebrates the birth of a savior, or atones for its sins annually, those cultural rituals are passed on through education. If a community abuses its children, or hates people of diverse racial or sexual identities, those cultures are passed on through education. Many communities have formal structures for education, such as Hebrew schools for Jewish children, which teach language and identity. Many communities have informal structures such as the learning of slang from neighborhood kids, or learning to cook from parents and grandparents. These informal learning opportunities are structural because they happen within the bounds of a communal structure. Just as a school might exist within a community, the learning relationships that form in a neighborhood or at home are part of the fabric that makes up a community. Culture occurs in the space that a community shares, whether it is a home, street, school, website, or library. Education occurs in the time that a community spends paying attention to passing the past to the future. Through this lens, education can be seen as shared time and culture as shared space. Shared space and time (culture and education) are the foundations on which the frameworks and internal structures exist. Space and time are the content of the community, the frameworks and internal structures are the form.
The internal structures, education, and culture of a community need to be fluid and flexible. They need to shift as a community grows, shrinks, and changes. The framework, however, needs to be permanent. Of course, permanence should not be mistaken with forever. Sometimes a community grows apart because an interest, ideal, or idea is no longer relevant to its members, or it no longer works in its current form. Sometimes a new idea results in a split or reframing of a community. When a framework no longer works, the essence that a community is built on will change. The community will no longer be the same community it was. This is often a fine development, but it is necessary to call it what it is: the end of one community and the beginning of another, many, or none. Some new frameworks grow out of old ones and even keep the old name, but it is important to recognize that the frameworks have changed and the old name is signifying something new while trying to remember something old.
The early 20th century philosopher Martin Buber writes extensively about the nature of human relationships and the centrality of developing intimate (not necessarily sexual, but deep and close) bonds with other human beings in building more humane communities based on socialist values. Buber describes the thinking of the socialist-anarchist philosopher, Gustav Landauer: “Socialism, which now lives only in the minds and desires of single, atomized people, will become reality… [In] the actualization and reconstitution of something that has always been present – of community, which in fact exists alongside the State, albeit buried and laid waste [by the State].” Buber, in his analysis of Landauer’s work, is describing the idea that the existence of the state, with its physical and guarded boundaries, armies, membership as citizenship, and overarching economic systems, has diminished the importance of community in the lives of human beings. Landauer uses the word “state” to specify the broader idea that some thinkers have termed “society,” which describes larger associations of human beings that exist, either at a different level, or in contention with community. This idea is important, because in this conception of community, as opposed to the state (or society), the state sets up false identities, in that it creates national cultures, which are alienating because in most countries, most people are not associated with most other people.
It must be noted that there is a long and ongoing debate about the nature of the state, society, community, and other concepts that describe various forms of human interaction. For example, in Liberal, and separately in Marxist, thinking, the state and civil society are differentiated. Through these lenses the state refers to the official power structures that choose the governmental, economic, tax structures, legal, and regulatory modes of operation. Civil society, on the other hand, describes the associations which are created by citizens within states (in liberalism these associations are routes for individuals to impact society). An example of this might be the National Rifle Association in America, or some town’s committee to plan their annual festival. This might include an association of workers, or a political organization. Liberals view the state and civil society as entities that need to remain in balance, while Marxism views the state as an oppressive and unnecessary form of human association. In this view, civil society can serve as an antidote to the coercive power of the state. In this essay the term “the state” is used, not to discount the important difference between the concepts of society and the state, but to pay heed to the dominance of the state (as opposed to civil society), which has diminished community in the lives of most people.
One way of understanding the above is that the micro-community (communities in which people know one another, and have common purpose through actual association) has been broken by macro-communities, like the state and even associations which are too big to give voice to micro-communities and individuals. Here, neither the state, nor civil society is demonized. Rather, these two forms of human association need to be broken down, and built back up through communal processes on a micro-level. This means that the state can be a positive actor in connecting communities and acting as a guiding influence if communities form the building blocks of larger societal groupings. At present, the state is the major actor in the atomization of individuals and many of the inequities that arise from that condition, but a federation of communities with participatory structures can form a different kind of state.
The frameworks of states are usually won through force and in many cases physically delineated by fences, walls, and guards. It is true that over the last few hundred years, national cultures have been created in order to bolster state-based identities, but these cultures are often a very broad combination of symbols which do not connect people on any kind of personal level. An American symbol of freedom such as the bald eagle connotes an American value of freedom, which is actually a value held throughout the world, not only in America or by Americans. The Americanization of this value only occurred because America (people living on a large expanse of land) needed to build a culture to fill that land (perhaps regional associations would make more sense if more attention were paid to the actual environmental differences at work in each region and the different ways that that can shapes lives). The culture was built to fill a space, rather than the other way around, which might have occurred as an organic culture built from the grassroots, as opposed to the top-down culture building that states utilize. The internal structures of states are usually alienating because the size of most states does not allow for most people to be involved in the decision-making and governance structures in any meaningful way. One can attend a debate and vote for representatives every few years, but most decisions are made without most people in this kind of large association of people. Statewide education systems are alienating, and often meaningless because of their lack of connection to the actual communities in which education occurs. This particular problem is laid out in much more detail in another essay in this work.
So, it is clear that the state – the most prominent form of human association at present – cannot replace community. Further, it has robbed many people of communal life. Its hegemonic existence in the world has destabilized the community as a permanent component in people’s lives, because if states dominate the world’s interactions then the importance of the community is diminished and the intrinsic need for it is hidden.
It should be noted that that the corporation has begun, in recent years, to eclipse the state as the dominant institution of today. Though this essay does not focus on the corporation here, these can be thought of as transnational institutions, which mimic – in many cases dictate – state power in the world.
The state seems to be too big to hold the elements of community together in any meaningful way. It is true that Black, or Jewish, or novelist are also huge categories of people, but these split up into subcategories based on region, interest, tradition and other factors. These are also identities that, for many people, seem to clarify who they are in ways that national citizenship does not. As with the Burning Man example, there are exceptions. Some people find themselves bound together by national pride, or religious affiliation around the world, but huge populations within most societies find themselves seeking out and attempting to identify themselves primarily with a community, because their national identity just isn’t enough. National identities, which are often associations between millions of people based on a broad sense of global position, as well as values and structures – imposed by mass media and standardized education – that are built to fill a void, do not suffice when one is seeking out deeply meaningful identity(s), which applies directly to that person and their connection to other people based on those (often multiple) identities. There is a lack of intensity, and artificiality, in such a broad definition of self that seems to lead to a missing quality which is sought out through communal ties. To be sure, national cultures do exist. American music, sports, and stories are present, but they do not fulfill the intense need for connection that community affords.
The question of why community is such an essential element of human life remains. Zygmunt Bauman writes about community as a word that goes beyond meaning; it is a word that has a “feel”. It is a word that feels comfortable and secure. It is something that people seek out in their associations with other people, and it is something that seems to be good for us and often unattainable in the world today. One of the central tensions that Bauman highlights in the search for community exists between freedom and security. Freedom is equated with individuality in Western, capitalist culture. The individual is free to succeed on her or his own. This individual freedom is at the core of one’s sense of self. Security, on the other hand, is of central importance as well, but a dichotomy has been built between these two elements of human life, the ability to live without worry of attack, starvation, or other negative occurrences, is necessary, but the more security that one has, the less freedom one seems to have. Bauman highlights the problem as such: Western culture seems to understand communality to be a sign of weakness. Individuality is equated with strength in the picture that Bauman presents, while communalism somehow shows a lack of will to be free. This ideal has led to a sense that those who are successful are able to move beyond communal structures.
That hyper-individualism has shaken the foundations of permanent community life. It is one thing to accept the reality that people are members of multiple communities. It is a very different thing to understand commitment to community or communities as a weakness. Bauman’s discussion of the need for balance between communality and freedom is important. What Landauer calls the state, Bauman calls society. Both thinkers understand in different ways that communal life – as opposed to the alienation of capitalist society - is vital to human happiness and the balance of freedom and security. Bauman correctly writes that as modern capitalism has produced an elite class that imagines that it owns everything it needs privately, community, which is “understood as a site of equal shares in jointly attained welfare” is out of the question for the elite.
Bauman’s assertion, that people often view the need for community as a sign of weakness, is correct. It is, however, incredibly unfortunate that community is seen in this way. It can be seen here that beyond the large size and empty identities that mark the state, capitalism - as an internal structure that many societies have utilized, which necessitates that some have and many have-not - poses a problem for the creation of the bonds that are necessary in building community life that is truly based on solidarity between people.
Community is essential to human freedom and security because it allows people to work, play, live, and learn together. It gives people a support system to attain their dreams rather than going it alone and it gives people the security that only connection to other people can bring. Human beings have a deep need to belong to groups. On one hand, the state is too big a group, and on the other hand standing alone is not a real option if one is seeking partners in life, which is true of just about everyone. People seek connection through shared interest, history, language, space, and time. Community provides this through an association that is not too large that the individual feels lost in the tow. Community is the association that, as Bauman understands, has the ability to balance freedom and security through committed human connections, which become possible when a community is made permanent.
There is something valuable to be found in the notion of the state. The state is not all bad. After all, there was a time in history when the spaces between cities and other settlements were dangerous because they were lawless. There was total freedom in the most elementary and individualistic understanding of the word, but security was scarce. They were spaces between, which one travelled through at one’s own risk. The state created security in those zones, which empires often neglected. The state can also allow for communication and progression through dialogue and shared experiences between communities. The state, if it is built from the grassroots, can be radically different than the kinds of states that exist today. A state that is made up of empowered communities in a federation with one another can create the larger societal bonds between those communities that can ensure solidarity and the permanence, through secure partnerships, that is essential for communities to thrive internally and affect the world around them. In this conception, the nation-state would become an antiquated idea. Federated communities would make up larger associations which could transcend national boundaries and militaristic patriotism in favor of global values which would be based on the values lived every day in people’s communities (more on that below).
There are those who use the term “community” broadly and in ways that don’t necessitate commitment to one another as a prerequisite. It is important to touch on the shifting ways in which people are talking about community. Much has been written recently about the changing nature of community and the many ways one can understand it. A recent book by Rebecca Solnit discusses the idea that community forms in beautiful, powerful, and extraordinary ways when disaster strikes. The idea here is that human differences become meaningless and people come together in times of crisis whether it is in response to a natural disaster such as an earthquake, or human made such as 9/11. Most of these examples are, however, temporary communities that come together to solve a particular and urgent problem. In many cases this sense of community dissipates as the problem is solved.
Another work focuses on the advent of the “collaborative consumption” movement. This book highlights the idea that interactive modes of communication, made possible by the Internet for the most part, are leading to a culture in which most people are not seeking out ownership of things, but rather access to things. Netflix, household tool sharing, and car sharing are all made possible by the Internet, and they are made possible by the willingness of people to share. “As our possessions ‘dematerialize’ into the intangible, our preconceptions of ownership are changing, creating a dotted line between ‘what’s mine,’ ‘what’s yours,’ and ‘what’s ours.’” These authors observe and write about ownership as a cultural attribute that is shifting and creating communities around sharing, common interest, and through the shared use of digital spaces. At the same time, The New York Times Magazine recently reported on the growing worry among Internet users that too much information is available about them online. This is a clear counterpoint to the idea that the Internet is simply a catalyst for community growth.
Without trust, solidarity, and knowing the people one is spending his or her time and space with, community is a tough thing to build. The size and potential for anonymity in these kinds of communities are problematic, just as they are problematic when thinking about the state. It’s true that the Internet can provide all the elements (albeit in digital form) that community demands, but the fear and uncertainty that many still feel emphasizes the reality that the more one knows the community around them – through more traditional, non-digital means such as neighborhoods, sports leagues, and perhaps groups built through shared identities – the deeper and more stable the communal identity and sense of kinship, at least until people become more comfortable with the Internet as a space to meet, work, and play.
Security and freedom are achieved through communal life if people feel that their community is stable and holds meaning in their lives. Community can be stable and meaningful if the frameworks and structures that make it up exist in such a way as to encourage commitment and solidarity and empowerment. Security and freedom, when balance is achieved, can be described as harmonious mutual responsibility. The goal of community ought to be the cultivation of this harmonious mutual responsibility between the community members and between communities as wholes. Empowerment can only be achieved through active participation in the internal structures, cultural life, educational processes, and in some cases - when large shifts in a community are taking place - the building of communal frameworks of a community. People need to have access to participate in all the various elements of community in order to truly be empowered within, and by, that community. Imagine, for a moment, a group of people living in close vicinity to one another. Perhaps they share an interest in urban farming, or they are all members of an ethnic community. Commitment to this community is really only possible if the community is permanent in nature. How can one be expected to commit to a group of people who may leave, or shift the essential meaning of the particular community at any point? The commitment that one makes is to the people and the idea (ideal, practices, or identity) that connects those people to one another. It is essential that people are committed to one another, otherwise the idea(s) that is supposed to link people will be empty because one will not actually be connected to the human collective. Without commitment to the idea(s), the people that make up a community will be no more than a group of friends. They will have no direction for their communal life beyond that of enjoying one another’s company.
The framework for this community cannot change in big ways too quickly. Sometimes neighborhoods become bigger because of population growth, and ethnic communities reframe themselves based on new realities. However, frameworks shift slowly and they change due to the shifts that occur within communities and outside of a community’s purview. For example, if a community is formed around a socialist ideal of living, that ideal may shift slowly towards more or less communal modes of living, but shifts in framework that are thrust into a community can break that community apart. For example, a community that is centered around the sharing of its resources based on basic socialist values of equity can and should explore the internal structures that are utilized for sharing. They might explore different ways of budgeting, allotting resources and making decisions collectively. They might even experiment with different modes of sharing, but if the community decided that it was no longer going to share resources at all or that equity was a passé ideal, the framework for that community would disappear. The community, as it had been defined, would have to either find a new central idea, or cease to exist as a community with the four elements intact.
Meanwhile, the internal structures that a community uses to operate and associate can, and should, be fluid and easily shifted with the needs and desires of the community. For example, if a system of voting does not encourage the participation of enough of the community members, or the youth of a community decide that they should have a voice at community meetings, the internal structures ought to be moldable to those internal realities. This imagined community’s internal structures could be set up to allow every community member to be a part of major decisions that affect the community. People could be expected to be involved in decisions that affect the whole community and decisions that affect their individual lives. This kind of empowerment over communal affairs would grow into a cultural attribute that would be taught through the community’s modes of education. Space would be set up to facilitate such collective decision-making, and educational time would be spent on developing the skills necessary to take part in those decisions in ways that are harmonious and emphasize mutual responsibility.
It is necessary here to be explicit about the content of this vision. Harmonious mutual responsibility entails inclusion, partnership, egalitarianism between all humans and with the environment. These values are inherent in the partnership and connection that ought to exist between individuals within a community, between communities, and throughout the world. It is clear that one necessary sub-element that needs to exist within the framework, internal structures, culture, and education of a community is the connection between the betterment of one’s own life and the betterment of community life, as well as the betterment of community life and its intrinsic connection to the betterment of the world. Put simply, community life becomes better when the world that the community is a part of is better. The individual’s life is better when the community that they are a member in is better. To be clear, the term “better,” as it is used here, refers to empowered relationships between individuals, and within and between communities, with regard to internal structures, education, culture, and even frameworks. Things are “better” when people have the power to make things more inclusive, fairer, more intimate, and more conducive to participation. This sub-element, as it has been called here, cannot be taken in pieces. All levels of this equation (individual, community, and global) have to be sought in order for it to work. It is for this reason that communities need to work together to better the world around it.
The above example is an alternative to what exists at present in most cases, but it is not impossible. Burning Man is an example of experimentation with alternatives in community, but the world needs more permanent examples. A world that is built on federated communities requires permanent communities to build it. The important balancing of freedom and security requires committed partners to trust one another based on the knowledge that each person, and the central idea that connects those people in community is alive, well, and growing. This requires permanence.
Harmonious mutual responsibility inherently contains the values of solidarity with one another on the individual level within the community and between communities despite differences in framework, internal structure, culture, and education, because there is a very real link between the individual, the community, and the relationships between communities, which is discussed above. Harmonious mutual responsibility also emphasizes responsibility for one another in a way that stresses the need for community. This emphasis on responsibility encourages the necessary balance between individual and communal freedom with the security that only comes from values that embrace human difference and human connection. This balance is achieved through the permanent and meaningful relationships that are found in harmonious and mutually responsible community.
 Buber, Martin. Paths in Utopia. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970. p. 46.
 Bauman, Zygmunt. Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2001. p. 1.
 Ibid. p. 58.
 Ibid. p. 62.
 Solnit, Rebecca. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.
 Botsman, Rachel and Roo Rogers. What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. New York: Harper Business-HarperCollins, 2010. p. 97.
 Kirn, Walter. “Little Brother is Watching: In the Web Era we are Eroding our Privacy all by Ourselves.” The New York Times Magazine. 17, Oct. 2010: 17-18.