V is for what? The meaning of the mask

Protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks gather outside St Paul Cathedral in the city of London on October 16, 2011 as part of a global day of protests inspired by the 'Occupy Wall Street' and 'Indignant' movements The mask was worn by a character who challenged an authoritarian government in the film V for Vendetta

Ask any actor, a mask is powerful. While the purpose of realism in acting is to strip away the pretence and make the actor expose their soul, on their face, for real - a mask does the opposite. It creates instant power and tension.

It makes the expression on the face immune to feeling, and therefore empathy. Masks are frightening.

But the mask is becoming part of the iconography of 2011. Numerous protesters - here and elsewhere - are choosing to identify themselves with the online protest group "Anonymous" by wearing the Guy Fawkes mask.

Now, on London's St Martin's Lane, I've just met a plumber on a motorbike wearing one, together with a fake pink Mohican stuck onto her motorcycle helmet. Together with an unmasked man, both in hi-visibility bibs, they were holding up placards to warn of the presence of a council CCTV spotter car at a place where traffic rules seem notoriously bonkers, and therefore provoke a lot of u-turns.

Every vehicle - but above all the taxis, the vans and the lorries - stopped, chatted, gave them a toot or a wave. They are fighting a legal case against "revenue driven" traffic enforcement, and pretty effectively. Thus warned, there were no traffic violations occurring.

Small though this action was, it weaves into the general discontent. Though Dale Farm is running split-screen with PMQs on the networks right now, earlier an under-reported but regular protest took place at London's Blackfriars. The electricians belonging to the Unite union attempted, as they do every week to, block the construction site there over the employers exit from a national pay scheme. There were, as far as I can see from the footage, no masks. Meanwhile, the LSX occupation is in its fifth day, and there are Guy Fawkes masks aplenty there. It IS a lot of protest for one day.

The traffic protest organised by campaign group NoToMob struck me because it is the first thing I have seen that mirrors the Greek lower-middle class anti-tax and toll protests. In Greece they are well down the route of refusing to pay road tolls, blockading courts trying to sell repossessed houses, refusing to collect VAT etc. I reported on this last month.

It has been called "anomic" because it is less about the desire to overthrow government than the willingness to withdraw from the social contract, to renege on your social obligations because you just do not think other parties are going to honour them.

It is like bad money driving out good, but in this case, within civil society not the market.

The meaning of the Guy Fawkes mask is not well known outside protest groups. It was the mask worn by V, the revolutionary leader in the comic book series "V for Vendetta" published in the 1980s.

In the plot Britain has become a fascist state ruled by violent corrupt cops, out of control secret police, paedophile priests, broadcasters who make blatant propaganda. As the society collapses, though the hero, V, aims for anarchism, what he gets is anomie - a society of "take what you want" in which rioters and hedonists take power as centralised power collapses.

I think you can see from this brief sketch why people are taking a renewed interest in the world of "V for Vendetta" and the iconic mask. It is rapidly becoming a cultural "meme" - a self-reproducing symbol. It sits, of course, on the mast-head of Britain's most popular right-wing libertarian politics blog - Guido's order-order.com - showing its ability to cross political boundaries, and at the same time change meanings.

I am not sure where it is going. But now I've seen a plumber stopping the traffic outside the English National Opera to protest traffic fines wearing the V-mask, I am pretty sure it is going somewhere.

Paul Mason Article written by Paul Mason Paul Mason Former economics editor, Newsnight

End of an era

After 12 years on Newsnight, Economics editor Paul Mason has moved on to pastures new and this blog is now closed.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Anton Chigurh @31
    I think it's possible to believe in memes without adhering to memetics. There are clearly ideas that spread easily. These days people would tend to say the idea is viral rather than a meme. Memetics is ridiculous becaues the structure of language and the structure of transmission of ideas don't mimic genetics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Bluesberry @ 15
    "V for Vendetta" was written by Alan Moore but he never takes any writer's credit for film adaptations and instead asks for payments to be made to the comic artist. If his name doesn't appear on the film that's why.

    It's a bit annoying that people know the film better than the comic when it's the comic that is a major work of art.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    '41. BABELrevisited
    ..to see if this blog has been closed down again.'

    This kind of thing usually sets the wheels in motion:

    '11. Jericoa
    Which is it Paul?'


  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    just a test to see if this blog has been closed down again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    You ought to start an economic caption contest for your blog photos Paul


    "VJanus "

    What more can the disinterested 1 % say to those who would come between them and themasses

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    V is for what? The meaning of the mask



    VJanus on legs Paul ,from the looks of it


  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Send in the clones ,its a new form of EgotalitArianism


  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    'Ere Paul,

    what about the emerging Middle Class Schism, 'the Haves and the HaveNots', how downgrading educated people has implications on the politico/economic battlefield ?

    400 chrs or less ?

    Economics Paul, Newsnight pay the same notional cost of moderation as Pesto/Steph/Nick but they use far more blog chrs.

    Quid pro Quo, you should get around a 1000 chrs (and hence a nomination :).

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Paul, sorry to hear you missed out on the EI noms.
    The fact you missed out is not down to the quality of your posts but is simply down to the restricted space allowed for discourse.

    What made your blog was the interaction between yourself and people prepared to put keyboard to posterity.

    If I asked you a good question could you respond in 400 chrs or less ?

    Post 20th Century Economics?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Did you know that it would cost just under £4,000,000 to mail to every household a cardboard V mask.

    4 Million Quid sounds a lot of money until you put it into the context of 75 Billion that Merv just printed up to give the illusion the banks are solvent.

    75 Billion sounds a lot until....E1,3 Trillion

    There is no amount of devalued currency that can prove the solvency of the banks

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Thats what happens when you try to kill Spartacusmartyr

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    V is representative of the upside down A in









  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Don't be tempted by taking a sideways view at meaning and fall prey to platonism. It might be best to consider V for Vertigo , and adopt an anti non-cognitive approach such as taken by John McDowell. At least this avoids that other V - Ventriloquism, such as Zizek's Tourette Syndrome puppet theatre, and his Lacan and Hegel sock puppets -ughhh

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Paul, you are in danger of ordaining a meme-etics in the same way as a gene-etics as hardcore to underpin your "anomie" theses. It will lead you down the road to a Dawkinesque Hell.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I can post on only two bbc blogs it seems. Steph's requires me to log into a disappearing link and similar although different things happen when logging into most of the others.
    Paul and Robert's are the best anyway, when you can get a comment through. Perhaps it's better that I can't post on Steph's.
    Excellent article Paul.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    26 Donald

    I have no doubt there will be many people trying to manipulate the `innocents' but the nature of autonomous scenes is that they cease to exist once this starts. They are spontaneous or they are nothing.

    Remember this is but the start of something the nature of which we know nothing. It is as Oliver Cromwell in 1642 saying `I know not what I want but I surely know what I don't want'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    In the film "V for Vendetta the repressive government ought to have been delighted that a mysterious violent Guy Fawkes type kept appearing all over the place, it would help justify their repression. If "V" had not existed they would probably have had to invent him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The mask may be the spitting image of jacques of the glorious revolution.
    We are legion, we are united, we are anonymous may be the only way of mounting a successful revolt in this era of mass surveillance.
    Perhaps the rioters will wise up next year.
    Probably possession will become an arrestable offence within a remarkably short period of time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    PART 2

    Post-Whittam Smith's revolution (see today's Indie) imagine the change in tone we would get from the BBC prior revolution – & after.

    How odd the MSM barely covered 'Occupy Wallstreet" and then suddenly there was mass coverage. I do think the bulk of the St Pauls protestors are innocents. I would be astonished if there weren't people behind the scenes trying to manipulate them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    PART 1

    Good piece, Paul.

    According to Andreas Whittam Smith in today’s Independent newspaper ‘Western nations are ripe for revolution. Whittam Smith believes we may be in a pre-revolutionary stage, not unlike Europe in 1848.


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