Early this morning, Reddit user “SlartiBartRelative” posted a photo, with the headline “The icon of anti-capitalism, mass-produced”. The post received thousands of upvotes and generated a long comment thread, though the most highly-rated comment argued “Those masks have nothing to do with anti-capitalism… like at all”. Other commentators note that Anonymous, which has famously adopted the Guy Fawkes mask, is anti-corruption or anti-tyranny, which may sometimes manifest itself as anti-corporatism, which can look a lot like anti-capitalism. (There’s also a helpful discourse on the historical Guy Fawkes. Yay, Reddit comment threads!)
I saw the image as it started appearing on Twitter, usually with a comment about irony or despair that a protest symbol was mass-produced under less-than-salubrious conditions:
There’s been a good bit written about the Guy Fawkes mask. Friend and colleague Molly Sauter has the definitive article, tracing the mask from Alan Moore’s comic book, back to Catholic revolutionaries, then forward through Epic Fail Guy, 4chan, Anon and to Occupy. But she doesn’t dwell at length on anti-capitalism, focusing more on masks, anonymity and collective identity. Leo Benedictus, writing in The Guardian, explores the irony that the mask, created for the movie version of “V for Vendetta”, provides licensing revenue to Warner Bros.
Later this morning, Business Insider published an article that borrows heavily from an article by Fabricio Provenzano for Extra Online, a Brazilian newspaper published by the massive Organizações Globo media group. Provenzano’s article, published ten days ago, suggests that the manufacturers are selling directly to protesters, with individuals coming to the factory to pick up hundreds of masks at a time, orders that are significantly larger than those made by wholesalers or distributors. The article doesn’t address the issue of licensing, but suggests that the factory is used to producing mass runs of masks for Carnival, and has also received designs for masks that parody Brazilian politicians, likely also for use in protests as well as in Carnival processions.
The impression I took from Provenzano’s article wasn’t that the factory, run by a mask company called Condal, was particularly badly run or exploitative – Provenzano was interested in the sudden surge of interest in the design. And I would be stunned if Condal were an official licensee of Warner Bros – I think it’s unlikely that money paid for thee masks is going into the pocket of a Hollywood studio as Condal seems to borrow heavily from the global entertainment industry in its mask design.
The photo of workers making Guy Fawkes masks is something of a Rorschach test. If you’re primed to see the exploitative nature of global capitalism when you see people making a plastic mask, it’s there in the image. if you’re looking for the global spread of a protest movement, it’s there too, with a Brazilian factory making a local knock-off of a global icon to cash in on a national protest.
Because the internet is a copying machine, it’s very bad at context. It’s easier to encounter the image of masks being manufactured devoid of accompanying details than it is to find the story behind the images. And given our tendency to ignore information in languages we don’t read, it’s easy to see how the masks come detached from their accompanying story. For me, the image is more powerful with context behind it. It’s possible to reflect on the irony of a Hollywood prop becoming an activist trope, the tensions between mass-production and anonymity and the individuality of one’s identity and grievance, the tensions between local and global, Warner Bros and Condal, intellectual property and piracy, all in the same image.
If you’d like a Condal-made Guy Fawkes mask, it’s available here – scroll down and look for item 101. It’s near the troll-face mask, which could also come in handy.