Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The commodification of rebellion

Remember Bill Hicks ranting on quite profanely about marketers' identifying even the anti-marketing demographic?

Just to jog your memory:

I don't disagree. In fact it's got worse. As dissent has moved into social media, counter-hegemonic forces are more dependent on the very structures and corporations we oppose than ever. That awful waste of organs Louise Mensch reckoned that any leftwinger who drinks coffee and uses an iPhone is a hypocrite: here's the clip, followed by Ian Hislop's very sensible rejoinder and Jeremy Hardy's very funny riposte to that level of thinking:

It's a commonplace that twentieth-century protest has largely been the preserve of the affluent classes, particularly students and the bourgeoisie. The same criticism has been levelled at the Brazilian protests this week.

And yet… I was given one of these masks.

Maybe you have one too. They're seen at every protest rally in the world now: as a signifier, they're a huge success. Wearing a Guy Fawkes mask signifies your solidarity with the oppressed anywhere in the world, against the machinations of repressive governments, vampiric corporations and sinister cults. But what are the mask's origins? It's actually graphic novelist Alan Moore's second semiotic hit: he adapted the yellow Smiley Face from American advertising campaigns for Watchmen, and its un-nerving blandness came to represent Ecstasy culture and the Summer of Love which so threatened the UK Government. 

The Fawkes mask first appeared in Moore's graphic novel V for Vendetta, designed by illustrator David Lloyd, in which a libertarian hero sows the seeds of rebellion in a cowed populus by committing stylish acts of terrorism from behind the mask. Finally, he uses the quality services of parcel delivery companies to get Fawkes masks and costumes to every household in the country. Emboldened by the subversive message and the safety of anonymity, they congregate to watch the Houses of Commons destroyed by V in his last, self-sacrificing act. There's no space for individual heroes in the new country: instead, everyone behind the masks must become their own heroes. As the fireworks soar and Parliament explodes, the people take off their costumes and take charge of their own destinies. 

And there it would have rested, had not Anonymous decided that public face of their decentralised, libertarian actions against surveillance, secrecy and litigiousness should be the Fawkes mask. Which is OK, really. The battle against state and corporate power is fought on an uneven battlefield (Snowden's revelations about the NSA and GCHQ have proven that), and anonymity is a vanishingly rare possibility. From there, the use of the mask spread from the virtual to the actual. 

But it's not that simple. The comics world is notoriously cut-throat and litigious. Alan Moore long ago disassociated himself from the films of his work and refused to accept any money. The rights to the comics are tied up in perpetuity with DC, as long as they keep them in print, however tiny the print run. Which throws up interesting questions, such where do the masks come from? Who makes them? Who profits from the growth of this revolutionary product? 

The simple answer is that every time a revolutionary buys a Fawkes mask, a near-slave in China or Brazil makes them for Rubies Costume Company and Warner Brothers/DC profits from them. While the mask symbolically promotes resistance, the purchase of the mask reinforces the status quo. And it's not just 'V' masks. A few years ago, I was given a 'Commie' costume: a stick-on goatee and moustache. It's available on all monolithic online retailers' sites.

Because I read every word I can get my hands on, I looked at the small print. Made in China. As are the Anti-Establishmints made by the Unemployed Philosophers' Guild apparently to promote the values of 1789:

They're very tasty. And the 'tache and beard transform my pasty fat face into that of a hardened defender of the proletariat. And yet, and yet. I have this image of a Chinese peasant corralled into a factory by a state which at least retains the discourse though not the practice of Communism, to spend her life churning out products which actively mock the ideals for which people have shed their blood in their millions. The V mask is a mass-produced piece of plastic which reduces the specific aspirations of millions into a generic statement of vague dissent. The Commie Mustache and Beard turns the complexity of Lenin or the murderousness of Stalin into a throwaway gag, dependent on the exploited labour of those who have been sold by communists into the hands of capitalists. The Anti-Establish Mints don't extend Liberté, Fraternité and Égalité to all: they turn those sentiments into a post-modern joke at the unseen expense of the real proletariat. It's a smug and reactionary product. I suck one on the way to Revolution, the Cuban-themed bar owned by a former Tory MP who'd be horrified by an actual revolution. 

It's a truism that all youth movements are quickly appropriated by capitalism: both Beatles Moptop wigs and Punk Mohican wigs were on sale within weeks of the scenes' popularity reaching a peak: arguably the moment was over once you could buy a stick-on Mohican. Perhaps it's just particularly galling that the signs of anti-capitalist resistance are so easily appropriated, hollowed-out of meaning and re-sold back to the movement. I don't know: perhaps I should just relax and assume that the multiplicity of meanings immanent in these objects keeps them meaningful. But I know I'd rather everyone thought up their own devices rather than allow the market to shape the discourse, even though I happen to think the Guy Fawkes masks are beautiful. 

If the enemy controls the ways in which dissent is communicated, then there is no meaningful dissent. 


Anonymous said...

You might make yourself aware of the vast differences between the comic and film of "V for Vendetta." The endings of the two are very different. The V of the comics is not a libertarian, a philosophy Moore derides because of its essentially conservative nature, but an anarchist. He doesn't want to improve the government; rather, he wants to tear down government even as a concept and let something new rise in its place. Also, Moore criticized the film, not for any libertarian positions display, but for being a mainstream left-liberal hodgepodge of ideas.

In the comic, there is no crowd of masked Britons doffing their disguises to support the uprising as themselves. There is no ludicrous secret manufacture and delivery of thousands (tens of thousands?) of cloaks and masks to people around London. Following the death of the dictator, the people are rioting, looting, raping, stealing, murdering. They are not revolting against the government, merely reacting to the death of a symbol of oppression. Or perhaps they are revolting, in more than one sense.

There is no self-sacrifice by V. Instead, he is shot by an honest, forthright police inspector, disgusted by the oppressive system, who thinks only of bringing to justice a known mass murderer. Only after V's death is 10 Downing Street destroyed.

Please read the comic before you write about it.

Anonymous said...

@anonymous 3 July 2013 23:46

"V for Vendetta" is quite clearly your favourite comic but could you have missed the point of this article any more than you did?