Uncle Che and the commodification of protest

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Today’s pop culture is rich in symbolisms of protest, such as Che Guevara, poster child of the global revolution and its capitalist reincarnation, whose image can be found on anything from T-Shirts to baseball caps, from coffee mugs to key rings, suggesting anything from Radical Left anti-capitalist critique to the revolutionary struggle of the cherries as they were squashed between two layers of chocolate. The latest addition to the range of protest merchandise are Occupy’s Guy Fawkes masks,  “a symbol of festive citizenship” according to The Guardian, and possibly Pussy Riot style ski masks that might soon be adopted as symbols of solidarity by advocates for freedom of speech around the world, before they run risk of trailing the Commandante’s fate. These symbols are in a long tradition of revolutionary branding that also services the shallow level of analysis dedicated to dynamics of social and political change around the world as we colour-code the good, the bad and the ugly. As suggested by Keck & Sikkink, “activists interpret facts and testimony, usually framing issues simply, in terms of right and wrong”.[1]

Symbols of protest are an omnipresent phenomenon on the streets of New York, London, New Delhi and Tokyo. What is the effect this has on the perception of underlying issues as they are embedded in middle class notions of a global civil society. Does the commodification of these symbols add meaning to the issues they stand for, eliciting support and nurturing solidarity with distant concerns, or does it drain their underlying political message by bringing them into the commercial realm? By wearing a Che-Shirt, are we automatically part of the protest culture with all its associated political undercurrents, or do we just follow a trend in global pop culture? Does it anaesthetise our conscience by suggesting that a piece of garment fabricated in a Third World sweatshop for minimal costs and sold on Cuba Street with a substantial profit margin and a cup of fair trade soy latte that suggests happy farmers with smiling children is as much of a contribution to protesting the havoc wrought by global capitalism as we need to indulge in on any given day?

As we know, few causes make it on the global civil society agenda for a number of reasons – the greatest benefit of raising the profile of Russian punk bands and Australian whistle blowers is the magnification of a single cause that can help draw attention to similar or related issues elsewhere, hoping for a spill-over effect to trigger sympathy for causes a handful of activists might have advocated for a long time without any notice being taken. The question remains, is there any revolutionary subtext left in Uncle Che’s image or has he been completely absorbed by the system he chose to fight?


[1] Keck, M. E., & Sikkink, K. (1998). Activists beyond borders: advocacy networks in international politics. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

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4 comments on “Uncle Che and the commodification of protest

  1. rpgordon says:

    “Man truly achieves his full human condition when he produces without being compelled by the physical necessity of selling himself as a commodity.” — Che Guevara, Man and Socialism in Cuba. Enough said.

  2. henning says:

    That’s right, and “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” (The people united will never be defeated!) for the internet has become “the Che Guevara of the 21st century”, at least in the Arab Spring uprisings, according to Alec Ross, Hillary Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation at the US state department (The Guardian, Hillary Clinton adviser compares internet to Che Guevara, 22 June 2011).

  3. saitongbor says:

    I would argue, Henning, that minus the actual act of protest, you are quite right to question the revolutionary credentials of such merchandise. I especially liked your point that consumption of protest images probably does little more than salve the consciences of those who like to think they are in solidarity with their chosen issue(s). I would not argue that such consumption is completely devoid of appreciable sentiment, but I would think that rarely does any substantial thought go into such purchases, being, as you say, more aligned with marketable trends.

    Perhaps a more interesting question, one that ties in more with your fair-trade coffee comment, is whether the commercialization of ‘righteous’ struggles generates a broader insight about the interrelationship between ‘the market’ and inequalities in general. Much weight is lent in the contemporary world to market-based solutions, a paradigm of thought which I think deserves to be closely scrutinized.

    I would begin by pointing out that probably the single best solution to worldwide economic inequalities consists not in people buying things, no matter how well intentioned, but in people not buying things. I would argue that the most effective form of resistance, or protest, against economic inequalities, both national and international, in a way that allows for some sort of self-determination in the face of massive structures which facilitate economic determinism (of which the fair-trade movement is a part), consists in a cohesive and substantial movement in which people do not buy products, by which they both reduce consumption overall, and reduce consumption of goods produced in a manner that is deleterious to peoples and environments. However, such a paradigm shift is probably impossible in a world of national economies geared towards GDP growth, and societies socialized to expect continued improvement in living conditions, i.e. a constant stream of more and better things. From this perspective, fair trade programs are more aligned to a problem-solving sort of activism, in that they simply mitigate ‘realities,’ rather than a critical sort of activism which would seek a radical transformation (Cox 1981).

    In a roundabout way, and perhaps a little off topic, what I’m trying to say is that revolutionary politics, a la Che, and consumerism are fundamentally incongruous activities. I think this is probably a Marxist position, and there is probably an appropriate and insightful (Post?) Marxist analysis that says something along the lines of capitalism’s ability to absorb and subvert practices of resistance. I think it is this line of thought that would answer your final question in the negative; there is no revolutionary subtext left in the image of Che.

    Cox, Robert W. “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory.” Millennium – Journal of International Studies 10, no. 2 (1981): 126-55.

  4. henning says:

    That’s a good point you raise. The Market (or the Wachowski’s Matrix?) is both a malevolent and benevolent system, but we have little influence over how it might affect us individually/collectively. It certainly does not like to see us seek solutions outside its own logic, so to make trade ‘fair’ appears to be the best response to allegations of unfair modes of production in some far flung parts of the world. Not buying things would be revolutionary, though, and I can already envision Agent Smith knocking at your door…

    Albert Einstein once said that “[w]e can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”, yet the kind of radical transformation Cox proposes to solve the conundrum of global inequalities is, as you suggest, an unlikely scenario. All the same, the persistence of the Euro crisis will certainly raise questions as to the sustainability of continued growth at least in Europe, and Europeans might in the future be a little more inclined to reconsider the need to forever upgrade their existence. I don’t think many Greeks queued up to purchase the latest iPhone.

    To return to the Commandante – what might have happened had he not been killed? What happened to all those revolutionaries that fought ‘the system’ to then discover that, after all, it’s not a bad place to be? Maybe not for the saturated middle class, but for many oppressed communities Uncle Che remains the symbol of yet unfulfilled dreams, and his image lends hope to countless struggles the world over. Maria Carolina-Cambre, in an article on that exact phenomenon, observes that “[th]e exceptional possibility offered by the matrix image of Che Guevara is of an expression of a rhythm matching the dynamic of hope whose essence is movement challenging the ground upon which claims “to challenge it itself” […] are made.”1

    1. Maria Carolina-Cambre, Virtual Resurrections – Che Guevara’s Image as Place of Hope. Online, available at: http://ualberta.academia.edu/mariacarolinacambre/Papers/157696/Virtual_Resurrections_Che_Guevaras_image_as_place_of_hope

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