Viewpoint: V for Vendetta and the rise of Anonymous
- 8 March 2012
- From the section Technology
On Saturday protests are planned across the world against Acta - the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. The treaty has become the focus of activists associated with the Anonymous hacking network because of concerns that it could undermine internet privacy and aid censorship.
First published in 1982, the comic series V for Vendetta charted a masked vigilante's attempt to bring down a fascist British government and its complicit media. Many of the demonstrators are expected to wear masks based on the book's central character.
Ahead of the protests, the BBC asked V for Vendetta's writer, Alan Moore, for his thoughts on how his creation had become an inspiration and identity to Anonymous.
Without wishing to overstate my case, everything in the observable universe definitely has its origins in Northamptonshire, and the adoption of the V for Vendetta mask as a multipurpose icon by the emerging global protest movements is no exception.
Back at the crack of the 17th century, Rushton Triangular Lodge was a strange architectural folly constructed to represent the Holy Trinity by an increasingly eccentric Sir Thomas Tresham while he endured decades of house-arrest for his outspoken Catholicism.
It was also one of the two locations, both owned by Tresham and both in Northamptonshire, at which the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was formulated by a group of dissident Catholics that included Tresham's son Francis.
It would seem likely that the treatment afforded to the elder Tresham played some part in the general mix of grievances from which the reckless scheme ignited.
By the early sixteen-hundreds, the bonfires traditionally lit around the start of November had been co-opted as trappings for a sort of national anti-Catholic day at which effigies of the Pope would be incinerated.
As mastermind behind the terrorist outrage du jour, however, the plot's nominal leader Guido Fawkes rapidly replaced the pontiff as hate-mascot of choice on these occasions.
Jump forward 300 years, though, to the battered post-war England of the 1950s, and the saturnine insurrectionary had taken on more ambiguous connotations.
When parents explained to their offspring about Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up Parliament, there always seemed to be an undertone of admiration in their voices, or at least there did in Northampton.
While that era's children perhaps didn't see Fawkes as a hero, they certainly didn't see him as the villainous scapegoat he'd originally been intended as.
At the start of the 1980s when the ideas that would coalesce into V for Vendetta were springing up from a summer of anti-Thatcher riots across the UK coupled with a worrying surge from the far-right National Front, Guy Fawkes' status as a potential revolutionary hero seemed to be oddly confirmed by circumstances surrounding the comic strip's creation: it was the strip's artist, David Lloyd, who had initially suggested using the Guy Fawkes mask as an emblem for our one-man-against-a-fascist-state lead character.
When this notion was enthusiastically received, he decided to buy one of the commonplace cardboard Guy Fawkes masks that were always readily available from mid-autumn, just to use as convenient reference.
To our great surprise, it turned out that this was the year (perhaps understandably after such an incendiary summer) when the Guy Fawkes mask was to be phased out in favour of green plastic Frankenstein monsters geared to the incoming celebration of an American Halloween.
It was also the year in which the term "Guy Fawkes Night" seemingly disappeared from common usage, to be replaced by the less provocative 'bonfire night'.
At the time, we both remarked upon how interesting it was that we should have taken up the image right at the point where it was apparently being purged from the annals of English iconography. It seemed that you couldn't keep a good symbol down.
If there truly was government unease about the mask and its associations back in the 1980s, these concerns had evidently evaporated by the first decade of the 21st century, when the movie industry apparently decided to re-imagine the original narrative as some sort of parable about the post-9/11 rise of American neo-conservatives, in which the words "fascism" or "anarchy" were nowhere mentioned.
Anarchy and romance
When the film was made during the peak period of anti-terrorist legislation the golden touch of Hollywood was, it seemed, sufficiently persuasive for the authorities to permit a massed horde of extras dressed as the nation's most famous terrorist to cavort riotously in Parliament Square.
I don't think one need subscribe to any quasi-mystical theories about how the conceptual world of ideas can affect the substantial world of everyday existence in order to agree that, in retrospect, this could be seen as practically begging for it.
After that, it wasn't long before the character's enigmatic Time-Warner trademarked leer appeared masking the faces of Anonymous protesters barracking Scientologists halfway down Tottenham Court Road.
Shortly thereafter it began manifesting at anti-globalisation demonstrations, anti-capitalist protests, concerted hacker-attacks upon those perceived as enabling state oppression, and finally on the front steps of St Paul's.
It would seem that the various tectonic collapses deep in the structure of our economic and political systems have triggered waves of kinetic energy which are rolling through human populations rather than through their usual medium of seawater.
It also seems that our character's charismatic grin has provided a ready-made identity for these highly motivated protesters, one embodying resonances of anarchy, romance, and theatre that are clearly well-suited to contemporary activism, from Madrid's Indignados to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Our present financial ethos no longer even resembles conventional capitalism, which at least implies a brutal Darwinian free-for-all, however one-sided and unfair. Instead, we have a situation where the banks seem to be an untouchable monarchy beyond the reach of governmental restraint, much like the profligate court of Charles I.
Then, a depraved neglect of the poor and the "squeezed middle" led inexorably to an unanticipated reaction in the horrific form of Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War which, as it happens, was bloodily concluded in Northamptonshire.
Today's response to similar oppressions seems to be one that is intelligent, constantly evolving and considerably more humane, and yet our character's borrowed Catholic revolutionary visage and his incongruously Puritan apparel are perhaps a reminder that unjust institutions may always be haunted by volatile 17th century spectres, even if today's uprisings are fuelled more by social networks than by gunpowder.
Some ghosts never go away.
As for the ideas tentatively proposed in that dystopian fantasy thirty years ago, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that whatever usefulness they afford modern radicalism is very satisfying.
In terms of a wildly uninformed guess at our political future, it feels something like V for validation.