Why Anonymous should unmask now or risk becoming car salesmen
On 31st January 1606, a battered and beaten Guy Fawkes walked to the gallows in front of a baying crowd of thousands. Amongst them was the very man he was charged with attempting to assassinate – King James I of England. Fawkes had been drawn from his prison in the Tower of London to what would be his final destination, Old Palace Yard, Westminster. Here he was due to be hanged then have his body quartered and sent to the furthest reaches of the realm. Choosing to throw himself from the scaffold and break his own neck rather than face any further torture, Fawkes’ lifeless body was nonetheless mutilated and dismembered as a warning to other would-be traitors.
Skip forward 350 years or so to 9th October 1967. In a Bolivian schoolhouse Ernesto “Che” Guevara was shot 9 times through the neck, arms and legs in a military execution designed to give the impression that the Cuban revolutionary had been killed in action. Guevara had been captured two days earlier by Bolivian troops and CIA operatives, interrogated and then killed before his supporters had chance to retaliate. In the years preceding his capture, Guevara had fought to forcibly remove large American corporations from his adopted Cuba and helped to spread Marxist ideology throughout Latin America and the rest of the globe.
These men’s deaths were not as simple as an eye for an eye. Fawkes died not purely because he tried to kill the King but because he fought to upset the status quo. By attempting to remove the Protestant monarch and begin a Catholic rebellion, he and his twelve fellow conspirators made challenge to the very foundations of 17th century Britain and for this it was deemed he could not be allowed to survive and must be made an example of. In the same way Guevara’s death was not ordered because companies such as the United Fruit Corporation were no longer allowed to trade in Cuba, but because of the ideas he embodied. His growing world standing as outward appearance as a genuine ambassador for Communist ideals offered too much of a threat to his predominantly capitalist neighbours.
The comparison between the two runs deeper. Both were relatively well educated, brought up in respectable middle class families, yet motivated to strive for immense social change. Neither was a stranger to war and conflict and both were, by all accounts, talented and passionate orators. Today the faces of both still resonate as a symbol of resistance to fascist regimes, overbearing government repression and corporate greed.
That’s the romantic version anyway. The problem is … they don’t. Regardless of whether you agree with their politics or methods, both men can be admired for taking a stand for their beliefs. Whilst many stay at home in silent disagreement, these men willingly gave their lives for what they believed to be the greater good. Today though, they are no longer seen as human beings who lived and breathed and walked upon the earth. Their legend has become such that they are now no more real than the likes of King Arthur or Robin Hood.
Che Guevara’s longevity as a cultural icon is entirely thanks to the very economic system he sought to destroy. Today his portrait “Guerrillero Heroica”, taken by Alberto Korda, is one of the most ubiquitous images of our time, appearing on a seemingly endless parade of merchandise from t-shirts to tee towels and everything in between. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London believe it to be the most reproduced in human history while Jonathan Green, director of the California Museum of Photography has speculated that it “has worked its way into languages around the world. It has become an alpha-numeric symbol, a hieroglyph, an instant symbol.”
In my youth, like almost every teenager experiencing the hormonal frustrations of adolescence, I too displayed the famous “Che” poster featuring the Cuban flag above my bed. I knew little of the man depicted or what he stood for, only that people thought he was pretty cool and that he had a nice beard. I bought it though as a metaphorical two fingers to the oppressive regime of my parents, with their cruel policies of enforced fruit and vegetable consumption and 11pm curfews. I wasn’t going to give in to “the man”, man, and this poster proved it.
It didn’t work. Mum thought it was Robert Lindsay.
Futile as my protest was, it goes to show just how far Guevara’s likeness has been removed from his beliefs. So much so that both are now rendered utterly pointless. There is now even a dedicated “Che” online superstore (www.thechestore.com) where you can buy “officially licensed” merchandise. Just quite who has the authority to licence such goods is unclear, but what is known is that the website is based in the USA and priced in US Dollars…just as he no doubt would have wanted.
So what use is a communist revolutionary who promotes consumerism? And what good are the products encouraging anti-capitalism?
Hours before his death, Guevara asked to see the headmistress of the school which had become his makeshift prison, 22 year old Julia Cortez. During their brief conversation he pointed out the poor condition of the schoolhouse, stating that it was “anti-pedagogical” to expect students to be educated there, while “government officials drive Mercedes cars”, declaring “that’s what we are fighting against.” Forty years later, at the launch of a new car-sharing scheme in Las Vegas (not ordinarily known as an especially socialist town), Mercedes displayed an adapted version of “Guerrillero Heroica” as it’s backdrop, the revolutionary star on Guevara’s beret crudely replaced by the Mercedes logo. Truly the detachment was complete.
For Fawkes it is no different. For centuries his effigy has been burnt in celebration of his riddance but today it is sold in fancy dress shops up and down the land, acting too as the defining icon for the Hacktivist’s darlings – Anonymous.
What began as a digital witch hunt has developed into a genuine world power. Time Magazine named the group amongst its 100 most influential people in the world in 2012, despite no-one knowing who the vast majority of its members actually are. Their faces are hidden behind a mask – the smiling face of Fawkes stylised by David Lloyd for the DC Comic “V for Vendetta”. The story focuses on one vigilante’s efforts to bring down an authoritarian British government in a dystopian fictional future. When developing the vision of the eponymous “V”, Lloyd wrote a handwritten note:
“Why don’t we portray him as a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those papier-mâché masks, in a cape and a conical hat? He’d look really bizarre and it would give Guy Fawkes the image he’s deserved all these years. We shouldn’t burn the chap every Nov. 5th but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!”
In the context of the comic the analogy with Fawkes is more than valid, both operated towards similar aims whilst using similar questionable, and often violent, methods. For Anonymous however the link becomes tenuous at best. Since their formation 9 years ago on the forum 4Chan, the self-appointed and self-regulated guardians of the internet have racked up a lengthy list of victims. Their iconography can be seen across the globe from Berlin to Bahrain, websites have been brought down, buildings occupied and viruses spread – all in the name of internet freedom.
On 5th November 2013, celebrated in the UK as Guy Fawkes Night, Anonymous rallied its “legion” to take to the streets, each one sporting the “V” mask, to protest against … well, anything they liked really. Like my teenage affinity to Che the icon, the differentiation between Fawkes the man and Fawkes the smiling mask seemed unclear for those protesting, as did the notion of a common focus for the protests. Various targets were singled out by the “Million Mask March” including the NSA, fracking, rising food costs, energy bills, the FIFA World Cup, bankers greed, corporate greed and the continued presence of Noel Edmonds on British Television (I might have made the last one up).
One of a number of Facebook pages for the event described it as a “Call for Anonymous, Wiki Leaks, the Pirate Party, Occupy and Oath Keepers to defend humanity”. In the UK, as protesters inevitably clashed with police forces in Parliament Square and hurled fireworks at Buckingham Palace it appeared they were doing anything but. Unsurprisingly, a movement based on anonymity and unlawful hacking appears to have been hijacked itself for the ulterior motives of less altruistic individuals.
As much as they claim to the contrary Anonymous have not yet changed the world. Nor will they ever in their current, anarchical, state. Without concentrated effort and reasoned argument, their causes, whether noble or not, will remain unsolved. To date all that has been achieved is bringing an acceptable face to unacceptable bullying and fear. A fictional character fighting fictional enemies has become real life extremists fighting real life people, yet no one blinks an eye.
The inconvenient truth is that Anonymous’ rise in notoriety owes more to its PR machine than its ideology. Without the mask, the mantra and the glamorised publicity their protests would be seen in a similar vein to the London riots, merely the work of opportunist trouble makers. Their attacks rarely have an established point, focus or goal. They appear to take up causes on a whim and then approach with a brute force mentality, determined to destroy all in their path regardless of whether guilt has been established first. Make no mistake, much of the work carried out in Anonymous’ name is terrorism. It may not involve hijacking planes or blowing up Parliament but the threat and chaos is just as great. How many of their “legion” would be as willing to act in their name if they weren’t afforded the privacy of the mask – forced to reveal their identity and accept the consequences as the man whose face they bear did?
Anonymous has the opportunity to be a genuine force for good, to usher in a new generation of politics that focuses more on issues that matter to the populous in way which resonates with the next generation. But therein lies the problem. Guy Fawkes is to Anonymous what Che Guevara is to Mercedes Benz, simply a clever marketing device, a pretty picture that can be easily appropriated – and while that remains the case, change can never come.
Andrew Cook, SBL