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 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 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 - 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.