Rats With Guns (Book Three, Part 62: Occupy)
Previously in Last War in Albion: In an unlikely series of events, a series of 2008 protests against Scientology that emerged out of the online hacker group Anonymous made widespread use of V for Vendetta-style Guy Fawkes masks. There are several possible reasons for this.
“Rats. Rats with money. And rats with guns. I’m your worst nightmare.” – Grant Morrison, Action Comics
A more parsimonious explanation, however, is simply that it was magic. V for Vendetta was not one of Moore’s conscious magical works, but art need not be conceived of as magic to be magic. And even if Moore wasn’t conscious of it, there is a clearly magical dimension to the way in which its conclusion served as an endpoint of the first phase of his career. The fact that the mask would come to prominence in anti-Scientology deepens the sense, Scientology having been the bastard offspring of Jack Parsons’ magical experiments and the disowned father of Burroughs’s magical techniques. Of course V for Vendetta’s central iconography would turn into a magical totem. Of course when that totem, completed in the wake of Watchmen reached fruition, it would be in opposition to Scientology. How else could it have possibly played out?
Moore, his part, was openly delighted by this development, remarking in a September 2008 interview that “I was also quite heartened the other day when watching the news to see that there were demonstrations outside the Scientology headquarters over here, and that they suddenly flashed to a clip showing all these demonstrators wearing V for Vendetta masks. That pleased me. That gave me a warm little glow.” His sense of satisfaction was, however, only just beginning.
In February of 2011, the Canadian anticapitalist group Adbusters proposed a “Million Man March on Wall Street.” The proposal for a mass demonstration on Wall Street gained ground, and eventually settled into a concrete plan for a demonstration on September 17th, now under the banner of Occupy Wall Street. Adbusters was by this point a venerable organization that had been around since V for Vendetta was being published at DC. Their primary practice was what they called “culture jamming,” a concept derived from the 1960s French Marxist group the Situationist International, who proposed a similar practice called détournement. In the case of Adbusters, this usually meant creating media that at first glance looked like perfectly ordinary late capitalist advertising, but upon inspection contained anticapitalist messages and critiques of the corporations being parodied. One notable example, for instance, sought to highlight Coca-Cola’s use of death squads in Columbia to crack down on a unionization effort by taking Eddie Adams’s Vietnam War photo of the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém so that a Coca-Cola logo appears flowing out of the gun like smoke. These tactics had an obvious aesthetic similarity to the sorts of memes popular on 4chan, and so it was unsurprising when people working under the Anonymous banner came out in endorsement of the demonstration. Which meant that when it happened there were once again a lot of Guy Fawkes masks going around.
As always, there are subtler currents at play here. The Situationist International was also the originator of the term psychogeography, which, in a much evolved form, would go on to prove a cornerstone of Alan Moore’s magical practice. This sympathetic resonance is not sufficient to explain the degree to which Occupy Wall Street broke into the wider popular consciousness. Ultimately ny attempt to explain that would have to be rooted in the fact that Adbusters and Anonymous were in fact very good at what they did, and their chosen slogan of “we are the 99%,” which served to highlight the extreme concentration of wealth among the already rich, was extremely catchy (and, for that matter, highly compatible with the iconography of the V for Vendetta mask). More broadly, the three years of depressing normality following the Great Recession in 2008 meant that there was a smoldering frustration with Wall Street profiteering that the protests could and did tap into. Nevertheless, it seems somehow inevitable—a pattern sketched across the culture that, once seen, feels like the only thing that could possibly have been there.
The protest ended up taking place in Zucotti Park, after police fenced off the first and second choice locations. Zucotti Park was a privately owned space open to the public, and so unlike the other two locations police could not evict protesters without being asked by the property owners, who initially declined to do so. Initially around a thousand people showed up to the protest, and a couple hundred continued to occupy the park overnight, creating a durable encampment there that would ultimately last two months before being forcibly cleared out by cops, by then profoundly eager to finally get to crack some skulls. Within those two months, however, the encampment served as an alternative vision of society—a more or less anarchist encampment that had its own food services, library, and ad hoc governance.
Although the protests gained international attention, and a variety of similar protests arose in other major cities, they unsurprisingly remained controversial, both because of the sustained right-wing attacks (Frank Miller’s description of it s “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness” that “can do nothing but harm America” was fairly representative) and because of the frequent disdain with which disruptive protest is held, especially by the centrist establishment. A frequent refrain was the complaint that the Occupy protesters refused to issue a clear set of demands. But this mostly served to miss the point. The purpose of Occupy Wall Street was not to lay out a policy platform on addressing wealth inequality, but to engage in an elaborate piece of culture jamming, shoving an anarchist commune in the middle of Wall Street. The protest was the whole of the statement—less a statement of public policy than of aesthetics, art, and indeed, magic. And at its core, as its most iconic symbol, was the Guy Fawkes mask, suddenly elevated to a universally recognizable symbol of anticapitalist protest in the Internet age.
If Moore had been charmed by Project Chanology’s use of the V for Vendetta mask, the Occupy movement saw his mood escalate into unrepentant glee. In a December interview in which he was asked about Frank Miller’s comments, he described Occupy as “a completely justified howl of moral outrage and it seems to be handled in a very intelligent, non-violent way, which is probably another reason why Frank Miller would be less than pleased with it” before snarking that “I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favour of it.” In January, with Occupy Wall Street dismantled but Occupy London still going, Moore paid a visit to the encampment outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, parts of which were filmed and put on YouTube. Talking to a man with a V for Vendetta mask atop his head and a bandana pulled up over his face who asked Moore how he felt about the use of the mask, a positively beaming Moore tells him about how he “was halfway down Tottenham Court Road, and I saw a bunch of you little rascals bothering the Scientologists, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s clever.’ Y’know, I was surprised and flattered to see that you were using the mask from V For Vendetta, but I could see that it made a certain amount of sense, if you’re up against people as famously litigious as the Church of Scientology then yeah, wearing something like this is only sensible. And I just thought it’s great that a spare idea of mine from three decades ago should suddenly turn out to have this new function.” The protester, for his part, warmly thanks Moore for the spare idea, and a grateful Moore thanks him in turn “for doing so much with it.” At the end of his visit, Moore reflected on how “The people here are amazing. I think that this is probably the best organised and most forward thinking protest that I’ve ever had experience of. So yeah, my hat is off to them,” and, when asked by an interviewer about the criticism of their lack of demand or plans, noted that “I don’t think that it’s necessary to have plans to change the world. They are protesting the way that the world is going, and I would say that having spoken to these people, they are at least making a decent fist of actually trying to come up with alternative ways of organising societies, whether that’s the small society of people in tents here, or society in the broader sense. I think that you can’t expect them to suddenly sort out all of the world’s problems with one manifesto; that’s clearly unrealistic. But I think that they’re making a very good go of it, and I would say to critics, ‘What are you doing about the current situation because if you’re happy with it, um, what the hell is wrong with you?’”
Moore’s status as a widely respected writer, the novelty of the situation, and the fact that he was reliably a very good interview subject meant that he was asked to opine on the movement and its use of the comic fairly regularly over the next couple of years, although he was generally careful not to unduly center himself, noting that “I can’t take too much [pride] because I’m not out there freezing my arse off on the steps of St Paul’s. I’m an old man who likes his books and comfort. I can’t take credit, but if something I wrote 30 years ago can be of some use then I take great pleasure in that.” Analyzing the particulars of the symbol in more depth, Moore reflected that “when you’ve got a sea of V masks, I suppose it makes the protesters appear to be almost a single organism, this ’99%’ we hear so much about. That in itself is formidable. I can see why the protesters have taken to it,” and noted that the mask “turns protests into performances. The mask is very operatic; it creates a sense of romance and drama. I mean, protesting, protest marches, they can be very demanding, very gruelling. They can be quite dismal. They’re things that have to be done, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re tremendously enjoyable, whereas actually, they should be.”
His most extensive comments came in the form of an essay for the BBC website that began with a characteristic approach to analyzing the situation as he declared, “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.” He went on to trace the history of the symbol from the Gunpowder Plot itself, noting that the plot was formed in the Rushton Triangular Lodge, and continuing through a brief account of the comic and film, which he continued to dismiss, while noting with evident pleasure that “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.” Ultimately, he reasoned 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,” with his co-creation as a central symbol of it. “Some ghosts,” he noted, “never go away.”
This sentiment, of course, applied just as well to the fact that in 2012, almost a quarter century from when he broke off his ties to DC, he was still trapped by that couple year period at the beginning of his career. In terms of the V for Vendetta mask itself, he was largely philosophical, noting that “It’s a bit embarrassing to be a corporation that seems to be profiting from an anti-corporate protest. It’s not really anything that they want to be associated with. And yet they really don’t like turning down money – it goes against all of their instincts,” and concluding that, as far as he was concerned, “I find it more funny than irksome.” Nevertheless, Moore remained eager to be free of the ghost of his own early career. And in a way, Occupy provided a chance for this. [continued]
Last War in Albion will return on February 20th for the final part of Chapter Eight.