In praise of anti-capitalist consumption: How the V for Vendetta mask blows up Hollywood marketing

A massive protest took to the streets and squares of the world in 2011. In a sense, we can almost speak of a global protest movement, emerging simultaneously in different cities and spreading across the globe, demanding a just society, real democracy, and condemning capitalism. A renewed feeling of urgency brought people en masse together in a struggle for liberation from the yoke of the dictatorship of both repressive political regimes, and capitalist financial markets. Even Time magazine bought into the trend, and named the protester person of the year 2011[1].

One of the many remarkable features of this protest movement, is the use of social media, and the mixture of real life protest in the streets and ideological discussion on the internet. Be it the Egyptian protesters who took to the Tahrir square in Cairo, the indignados movement occupying the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, or the Occupy movement in Wall Street, they all started with calls, set out through internet based media. Electronic devices were used in all movements to inform people, and initially bring people together on the streets, where they further organized themselves. This same use of expensive technology, also formed the basis for critique, especially on the Occupy movement. How can one struggle for liberation from the capitalist yoke, with a Samsung smartphone and an Apple laptop in one’s hand? The fact that a movement like Occupy could not have spread without the help of such capitalist commodities, would signify that it is not possible to do away with capitalism all together.

We wish to refute this critique and, together with Shukaitis (this issue), we believe that a progressive and anti-capitalist, commodity politics is possible. As an iconic example we take the Guy Fawkes mask that has been used in almost all protests. This mask is the merchandizing product of the Hollywood film V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005). The story is based on the comic book with the same title, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (1988). In the story, an anarchist revolting hero, by the name of V, brings down a totalitarian British government after an atomic war took place. V is always hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask.

The mask is one of the best-sold items on Amazon, where it can be purchased for roughly 5 US dollars. Consumers are encouraged to buy it, in order to become a ‘freedom fighter’[2], and it is recommended in consumer reviews as perfect to safeguard one’s anonymity during demonstrations, or to ‘stir up ones neighbourhood’. One reviewer warns fellow buyers to make sure the mask does not impede one’s visibility while planning to blow up the parliament at night, referring to the historical figure Guy Fawkes, a British anarchist from the 16th century[3]. The mask was adopted by hackers collective Anonymous and was widely used during Occupy gatherings. It has become an icon of anti-capitalist protest. Although it still is a commodity related to a Hollywood film, it has the power to inspire the revolt.

The mask shows that in a world of ubiquitous consumption, some commodities can be used for an autonomous finality, proving that a certain anti-capitalist consumption is possible. Anonymous uses the mask because it fits perfectly well with their aims. As the name shows, Anonymous is proud of not identifying itself. The movement relies on swarm intelligence, as explained amongst others, by Hardt and Negri (2004). It is the combined efforts of the interchangeable elements of the swarm, which produce a common intelligence, able of great achievements. The same auto-organizing power, without a classical hierarchical structure, is applied by the Occupy movement, which presents itself as ‘the 99 %’. Swarm intelligence relies on non-identity. Occupy draws its convincing power exactly from the fact that it represents the majority of interchangeable people, living under shared conditions, and having common demands. It is the multitude (ibid.) from which no-one stands out. Anonymity is of huge importance in creating a non-identity, and therefore a non-individualisation, which can be used as a strategy to counter-attack mechanisms of discipline, and hierarchical organization based on control.

In contrast to this strategy, marketing promises tailor made products for individuals, and consumption runs on the individuality of the consumer. Individualization and identification are two pillars of capitalism, and a central feature of consumption. A capitalist consumption of commodities creates the illusion that you stand out from the crowd as an individual, with a strong and recognizable identity. Branding aims to present the consumer with a specific identity. Supporters of Occupy and Anonymous, by wearing the mask, directly oppose this marketing ideology. The commodity then is transformed into its opposite: those who buy the V for Vendetta mask and identify with Occupy and Anonymous, are actually proud of not identifying themselves. In this sense, anonymity runs counter to ubiquitous consumption and presents a powerful political weapon against the capitalist ideology of the free, individual consumer. The paradox of this move is that the vehicle of this transformation is a commodity, which has changed its meaning in the hands of the consumer. The logic of capitalism is turned around into something we ironically would like to call anti-capitalist consumption.

The example of the V for Vendetta mask shows how the consumption of capitalist commodities can result in a strategic change of the use, meaning and purpose of these commodities. Smartphones can be used in demonstrations to escape kettling techniques of the riot police, as the app shows, which was developed by London based activist group ‘The Sukey Project’. Laptops can be used to hack the websites of capitalist multinationals and repressive governmental institutions, as repeatedly demonstrated by Anonymous. There is even a fashion line for rioters[4]. Such forms of anti-capitalist consumption draw on the strategy of the parasite. The relation between the host and the parasite is not only abusive, as French philosopher Michel Serres shows (2007). Parasitism is a form of exchange. The parasite seems to take without giving, but he repays its host with a different currency. The uninvited guest at a dinner table pays with conversation and stories (Serres, 2007: 34).

The parasite invents something new. Since he does not eat like everyone else, he builds a new logic. (2007: 35)

He creates a new meaning, and enriches the relation with the host. The presence of the parasite adds a new dimension to the natural habitat of the host, and therefore opens new possibilities for relations. Serres’ line of thinking invites us to reconsider who is the host and who is the parasite. It could be the one seen as the parasite, who provides the one seen as the host, with new meanings and information, and it could therefore be the host making use of the new input of the parasite. The host thus becomes a parasite in his/her own way, and the parasite becomes the one making a contribution. In every social relation this complex interplay between abuse and contribution takes place. According to Serres, such exchanges of the parasite transform the world and makes social relations work.

Changes occur, then, because of parasites. They change the meaning of social relations and communication systems. In this sense protesters, who are involved in movements like Occupy, operate like parasites. They initiate change, not by succeeding in having all their demands for social change realized, but by making the system, against which they protest, falter. By disturbing the daily course of events in the city, and by defying existing rules and authorities, they produce a noise and interfere in regular communications. They force the existing system to malfunction, and at the same time open possibilities to imagine new forms of communication, and social relations. In this sense they disturb and produce at the same time. If there were no parasites, the entire functioning of communication would collapse. According to Serres, a third element, which both forms a channel and interferes between communicating partners, is essential to communication. It is the noise which is produced in this channel, the difference between what is said and what is perceived, that makes communication. Or, in his words:

Systems work because they do not work. Nonfunctioning remains essential for functioning. (2007: 79)

 The parasite relation is supported and reinforced by commodities, which also change their meaning. As in the case of the Guy Fawkes mask, a marketing commodity changes into an instrument of revolt, or as Serres would put it, into a quasi-object. The commodity is after all a thing that has value in an exchange market. However, by the parasitic exchange it receives a different value. In the use of the commodity, people are brought together for different purposes, enabling them to express a different subjectivity, and exchange different values, which can contradict the neoliberal, capitalist ideology behind the market. ‘This quasi-object, when being passed, makes the collective, if it stops, it makes the individual’ (2007: 225). A quasi-object defines a subject, it gives the bearer a meaning in the act of exchange. Serres uses the example of the ball in rugby; the ball defines who is playing, who is passing it.

This quasi-object that is a marker of the subject is an astonishing constructer of subjectivity. We know, through it, how and when we are subjects and when and how we are no longer subjects. (2007: 227)

In a similar way, a mask can make us anonymous protesters. It can make us part of a collective subjectivity with revolutionary intentions, a swarm intelligence challenging the established world order. What will be the outcome of these parasitical shifts is anyone’s guess. Perhaps, in order to reach wider markets, the logic of capitalism is able, through its parasites, to transform itself into its opposite. Perhaps the 99 % will forge a more radical transformation, and capitalism will finally exhaust itself.

If the mask could speak, it might give us the answer…..

 

[1]       See: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/
0,28804,2101745_2102132_2102373-1,00.html.

[3]       See: http://www.amazon.com/Rubies-Costume-Co-4418-Vendetta/dp/
B000UVGLHU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1344886343&sr=8-1&keywords=
v+for+vendetta+mask.

references 

Hardt, M. and A. Negri (2004) Multitude, war and democracy in the age of empire. London: Penguin.

Moore, A. and D. Lloyd (1988) V for Vendetta. London: Titan Books. 

Serres, M. (2007) Parasite. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

the author(s)  

Ruud Kaulingfreks writes on philosophy, aesthetics and organizations and teaches at the University for Humanistics at Utrecht. In the summers he is a cricket umpire and loves to cook seafood the whole year round. He enjoys long discussions with his daughter with good wine and a lot of cigarettes.
E-mail: kaulingfreks AT upcmail.nl

Femke Kaulingfreks studied philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. She is currently completing her Ph.D. thesis on the unruly political agency of youth from so called &;problematic neighbourhoods&; at the University for Humanistics at Utrecht. Outside of academia she is active for the cultural squatters collective &;Schijnheilig&;. She enjoys long discussions with her father with equal amounts of good wine, however without the cigarettes.
E-mail: kfemke AT gmail.com