Forty years since his death, Che Guevara is selling strong. But his continuing iconic status tells us less about Guevara and more about the irreverence and unpredictability of culture in a capitalist society.
There is hardly a more recognisable symbol of revolutionary chic. Guevara’s image is plastered on T-shirts, backpacks and posters. One online store sells clocks with his iconic portrait to emphasise just how anti-establishment wall-mountable clocks can be.
Che Guevara is the Ralph Lauren polo shirt of the anti-capitalist set. But Guevara doesn’t really represent what the university students who proudly display his image think he does. Guevara was a Marxist guerilla who made a specialty of executing his opponents and prisoners without trial. He pioneered techniques of psychological torture. And he directed “suicide squads” that were sent into battles with no hope of victory.
He also founded Cuba’s concentration camp system, extolled the virtues of class hatred, and persecuted homosexuals.
Even when he wasn’t waging war against civilians, he was still a disaster. After the Cuban revolution, Guevara took a government position as Cuba’s central economic planner, and promptly drove the economy into the ground. Michael Moore and Oliver Stone may flatter the achievements of Fidel Castro, but much of the blame for the poverty of Cuban socialism must be laid at Guevara’s feet.
For this reason, it would be easy to chalk up the modern admiration of Guevara to dormant totalitarian fantasies in the left. But there is already too much self-righteous indignation in politics. Just because someone has a poster of Guevara on their wall, doesn’t immediately imply that they want to send homosexuals to a prison camp and execute those who are not doctrinaire Marxists.
For most people, Guevara is simply a vague symbol of rebelliousness. The modern cult of Guevara loves the rebel, but ignores his cause.
Nevertheless, even that anti-establishment credibility is being seriously devalued. Advertising executives appropriate his image to make their brands seem edgy.
It’s hard to imagine anyone more embedded in the establishment than Prince Harry, yet the third in line to the English throne has paraded around in a Che Guevara T-shirt.
The iconic Guevara has been devalued nearly to the point of meaninglessness. What remains is little more than a striking piece of graphic design with strong colours.
This is hardly surprising. Popular culture has a wonderful habit of appropriating meaningful symbols, processing them into accessible packages, making jokes about them and finally selling them for a profit. The modern cultural economy has a voracious appetite for icons to ridicule and market.
Popular culture turns dictatorship and violence into irony and kitsch.
And Guevara’s portrait is not the only morally ambiguous icon being appropriated for popular consumption.
The popularity of Soviet propaganda posters is undiminished by an awareness of the brutal oppression of Soviet communism. Same too for Chinese communism — posters of Chairman Mao are widely available even as the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution is revealed to the West.
Even Nazism can be the brunt of cultural ridicule. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator mocked the effete airs of Adolf Hitler, without diminishing Chaplin’s serious contempt for the Third Reich. Earlier this year, the German comedy Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler was a box-office hit.
But Nazi kitsch has not been so comfortably embraced by popular culture — perhaps a testament to our continued inability to fully comprehend the horror of the Holocaust.
Similarly, not every use of the Guevara icon is ironic or in jest. Those who display it in deliberate solidarity with the Argentinian guerilla fighter are either ignorant or morally bankrupt. Guevara was nowhere near the quasi-Jesus figure portrayed in the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries.
For many of the people who suffered from his attempts at Marxist revolution, a Guevara T-shirt is the moral equivalent of a Stalin T-shirt.
But capitalist culture doesn’t obey moral judgements. Ironically, Che Guevara’s longevity as a cultural symbol has been thanks to the very economic system he sought to destroy.