What Guy Fawkes’ mask can teach us about the turmoil of 2011

v for vendetta blowup[The following is a selection from my new book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Amazon link below.]

The 2011 protesters connected with political violence only in a Hollywood version, through their fantasy lives.  At virtually every protest described in this book, you found people wearing the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the 2006 movie, V for Vendetta.  This was unique for would-be revolutionaries.  I can’t imagine Lenin or Mao or Castro allowing their comrades to impersonate a fictional character.

Fascination with a revenge melodrama offered a hint about how the young transgressors of 2011 viewed themselves – and what they imagined they were doing.

Guy Fawkes was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament.  The mask was traditionally worn in “Guy Fawkes Night,” which celebrated with bonfires the discovery of the plot.  Hollywood turned this story on its head.  The film depicted a future Britain ruled by a fanatically religious authoritarian government, whose persecutions sounded like a catalogue of victims from Occupy Wall Street:  “Immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, terrorists, disease-ridden degenerates…”  “V,” a mysterious figure in a Fawkes mask, perpetrates an orgy of violence to bring down the government.  The movie ends with an immense crowd in V masks overwhelming the security forces, while Parliament building and Big Ben explode musically in the background.

In his disgust with his place and time, V sometimes sounded like an indignado.  “The truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country,” he brooded.  But mostly he was an action hero who, in the 132 minutes of the film, personally slaughtered a significant portion of the ruling class.  The lust for righteous mayhem, in good movie fashion, was untroubled by doubt.

V at Occupy Wall Street

V at Occupy Wall Street

While this was hardly the political model in 2011, there can be no denying the influence of V for Vendetta on the participants.  Wael Ghonim turned to the Guy Fawkes mask to underline his anonymity as administrator of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page:

In 2006 I had seen the movie V for Vendetta and fallen in love with the idea of the mysterious warrior fighting against evil.  I was still influenced by this idea when I created the Facebook page:  the notion of an anonymous sentinel who tries to wake up the people around him and spur them to revolt against the government’s injustice.  For my article “Who Are You, Mr. Admin?” I used the distinctive mask worn by the movie’s protagonist as the main image.

“I identified with V’s desire for change,” explained the mild-mannered Ghonim, “although in no way did I approve of his violent means.”  To anyone who has watched the film, this was an extraordinary statement.

The mask was originally introduced to protest politics by the hacker group “Anonymous,” which claimed for itself prodigious powers not unlike those of the protagonist in V for Vendetta.  Anonymous can only be described as a mutant offspring of the Fifth Wave, spawned from the most nihilistic elements of the web, and it has played an uncertain part in the struggle between the public and authority.  Its members sometimes talked like revolutionaries but often behaved like the London rioters, stealing data and vandalizing sites just because they could.  None of them, when finally identified, turned out to be engaged in radical politics of any kind.  They had meant it when they boasted, “We do it for the lulz.”

Anonymous’ endorsement of the Occupy Wall Street movement generated a great deal of buzz.  In a series of bombastic YouTube videos featuring the mask, the hackers made many threats – for example, to “flood into lower Manhattan” with their supporters, declare “war on the NYPD,” and “erase” the New York Stock Exchange using their hacking prowess.  This proved to be more drama than reality.  One video disseminated the name and personal data of the cop who had pepper-sprayed protesters.  Denial of service attacks slowed down the NYSE, and pushed it offline for a few minutes.  Other than that, the one lasting contribution of the hacker community to the turmoil of 2011 was to re-connect it with the V mask.

Self-dramatizing with Anonymous

Self-dramatizing with Anonymous

I don’t want to make too much of this.  Like dueling naming conventions, the infatuation with V for Vendetta was a symptom, not a cause, of the larger conflict.  It revealed an emotional orientation among the protesters:   they were self-dramatizers to an extreme degree.  The disconnection between their words and their actions, between their understanding of effects and their indifference to causes, can be explained by this trait.

As with V, their self-dramatizing was manifested in gestures of negation – of repudiation, accusation, destruction, erasing history and leaving the future blank.  The movie ended with the demolition of the old regime.  The rest would take care of itself.  “With enough people, blowing up a building can change the world,” V had proclaimed.  But that was true only in fiction.

Wael Ghonim got the chance to play the role of V almost to perfection.  As an anonymous political force, he tormented the Mubarak regime, assembled its opponents, and helped engineer its overthrow.  At the moment of victory, however, more than negation was needed.  The movie had ended, but the drama in Egypt moved on.  Ghonim, the real-life V, lacked a script to follow once the oppositional gesture lost its potency.

Because political conditions were much less dangerous in democratic countries, self-dramatization there seemed proportionately more extravagant.

Political rebels in Europe, Israel, and the US felt betrayed by the failure of the structures of authority, particularly the government and the economic elites.  The feeling wasn’t entirely unreasonable.  The masters and regulators of finance had placed large foolish bets, but when the bottom fell out in 2008 it was the public, not them, who paid the losses.  There was ample room for criticism, even for cynicism.

In the end, however, a term like “failure” can only be applied relative to some expectation – and we have seen that the rebels’ expectations of modern government were at once fantastical in their scope and vaporous in definition.  They ascribed magical or, I venture to say, divine qualities to cumbersome, all-too-human bureaucracies.   They believed government could work miracles:  it could give meaning to their personal lives.  This faith was most evident in Israel, a country that quickly overcame the effects of the crisis.  Protesters there were affluent and employed, but expected the government to deliver personal fulfillment within a context of social justice.  What that meant was never explained.  Most of the American Occupiers also held down jobs.  Conversely, those nearest to poverty never participated in any of the 2011 street revolts.

Even in the rhetoric of the protests, the connection to the economic crisis was, at best, indirect.  Manuel Castells had it right when he wrote that “the movement” was about “everything and nothing at the same time.”  2011 never fixated on 2008:  the impulse was to abolish history entirely, and open up a future purified of cause and effect.

In their eagerness to play a part in some world-historical drama, the rebels often gave the impression that they were searching for causes.  They disdained specifics – ideology, policy – but excelled at lengthy menus of accusations.  Stephane Hessel, French prophet of outrage, understood this process of self-aggravation.

It is true, the reasons to get angry may seem less clear today, and the world may seem more complex.  Who is in charge; who are the decision makers?  It’s not always easy to discern.  We’re not dealing with a small elite anymore, whose actions we can clearly identify.  We are dealing with a vast, interdependent world that is interconnected in unprecedented ways.  But there are unbearable things all around us.  You have to look for them; search carefully.

A life spent in search of unbearable things will be necessarily destructive of the legitimacy of most standing institutions and social arrangements, including those which created and sustained the destroyers.

Unlike the fictional character V, the actual protesters of 2011 were unable to wipe clean the slate of power and society.  Mubarak fell, the Spanish socialists were voted to near extinction, Netanyahu compromised, Obama borrowed the slogans of OWS – but the consequences, three years down the road, nowhere have matched the glittering expectations of participants.  The old systems still stand.  The hierarchies of the industrial age, with their top-down myopia, stumble on.  The behavior of these structures obeys an inner logic:  despite Itzhik Shmuli’s utopian proclamation, government never became a servant to the forces of revolt.

But the hypothesis I presented in this chapter was not that the public in 2011 had the interest or the capacity to replace current institutions of authority.  It had neither.  Sectarian to the core, the public would have felt corrupted by the thought of assuming the functions of the Center.  The phase change concerned, at the most obvious level, a new capacity to mobilize large numbers of the public and so to command the attention of all political players, from government leaders to the media to ordinary voters.  This was a new thing under the sun, and it became possible only in the altered landscape of the Fifth Wave.  Digital platforms allowed even rioters who wished to loot London stores to organize and act more intelligently, for their purposes, than the authorities.

The consequence wasn’t revolution but the threat of perpetual turbulence.  The authorities felt, and still feel, their incapacity keenly.  Governments are aware that the public could swarm into the political arena at any moment, organizing at the speed of light, hurling anathemas of repudiation.  Political elites in democratic countries have become thoroughly demoralized.  Whether this was deserved or not is a separate question, to be examined in the next two chapters.  But the crisis of confidence among established politicians has precluded the possibility of bold action, of democratic reform.

The phase change began in 2011, but the end is not in sight.  In the Italian general elections of February 2013, a new party, the “Five Star” movement, won 25 percent of the vote for the lower house of parliament and became the second-largest entity there.  The party was the creation of a comedian-blogger who called himself Beppe Grillo, after the Jiminy Cricket character in Pinocchio.  In every feature other than its willingness to stand for elections, Five Star reproduced perfectly the confused ideals and negations of the 2011 protests.  Despite receiving more than eight million votes, it lacked a coherent program.  The single unifying principle was a deep loathing of the Italian political establishment.  The rise of Beppe Grillo had nothing to do with reform or radical change, but meant the humiliation and demoralization of the established order.

That was the most profound consequence of 2011:  sowing the seeds of distrust in the democratic process.  You can condemn politicians only for so long before you must reject the legitimacy of the system that produced them.  The protests of 2011 openly took that step, and a considerable segment of the electorate applauded.  Like money and marriage, legitimacy exists objectively because vast numbers of the public agree, subjectively, that it does exist.  If enough people change their minds, the authorizing magic is lost.  The process is slow and invisible to analysts, but, as I have noted, the tipping point comes suddenly – a matter of weeks for the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes.  How far down this road existing liberal democracies have proceeded is a matter of guesswork.  We still have time to discover that the street revolts of 2011, in V’s words, did “change the world,” and not in a good way.

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