For just $11.99 you too can be the proud owner of a “Che Guevara Revolution T-Shirt!” This statement is ironic in that a fervent Latin American Communist revolutionary has his image commodified and fetishized, sold and distributed on Amazon. Che Guevara, a Communist revolutionary from Latin America, would not have wanted his image commodified and sold on Amazon. However, in the 21st century, anti-capitalist symbols are often commercialized, a process that goes against the very principles underlying the ideology. This effectively dilutes the power and significance of these symbols, regardless of intention. The issue is when the purchasing of these goods is borne out of ignorance; Buying products that have anti-capitalist iconography without an awareness of what lays behind these symbols is a clumsy misappropriation of ideology. This phenomenon is so interesting because it is a manifestation of a society in which nearly everything can be commodified.
This commodification manifests itself in different forms. Examples include the (in)famous Gucci shoes with toes that display the hammer and sickle—a symbol of the Soviet Union—and a Vetements hoodie with the same symbol on the shoulder worn by Kim Kardashian West. This sweater costs the exorbitant price of $770, which is ironic considering the fact that the hammer and sickle stands for the deconstruction of socioeconomic class. These luxury fashion items not only dilute, but mock the power of the hammer and sickle as the symbol of an ideology.
Repurposing symbols with the intent of making a statement, however, should not be so quickly condemned. It can, at times, serve as a valid form of political expression. Alexander Kosolapov, a famous Russian painter associated with the Socialist Art Movement in Russia, created pieces that are particularly famous examples of this practice. One of his most famous images depicts Jesus Christ and Coca-Cola logo against a red backdrop; a line of text on the image reads “this is my blood.” Another version features the McDonald’s logo with the line, “this is my body.” This particular piece of art repurposes the image of Jesus Christ to make a statement about how capitalism has pervaded Western society so thoroughly that even images of Jesus Christ can be commodified.
Some commodifications of the symbols of Che and the hammer and sickle are done with a similar intent to that of Kosolapov, which justifies their work. In the case of the Vetements hoodie, founder Demna Gvasalia is a native Georgian—a former state of the Soviet Union; one can interpret that she repurposed the symbol on purpose, in order to take away or mock its power. The same could be said of the Gucci shoe; putting the hammer and sickle on a designer Italian shoe could be a calculated move intended to make a statement. Indeed, sewing a symbol of the working class on a luxury good is an ironic statement fit for this post-modern world, especially in an industry where value is placed on originality and provocation.
While the purpose behind some of the manifestations of this phenomenon are justified, this does not necessarily change the effects it has on society at large. When done without intention, the act of buying and wearing a Communist symbol is no longer a form of political discourse. Kim Kardashian West has managed to commodify her image and her life, and often serves as a symbol of capitalism; her donning this sweater is particularly rich in irony, and begs the question of just how aware she is of this. This is not to say that Kardashian West is unintelligent, but that a majority of Americans do not know much about Communism beyond its negative image. Thus, her appropriation of this symbol is not justifiable because it is done with a degree of ignorance. The same applies to those who buy Che Guevara shirts on Amazon, without thinking of the impact of diluting these symbols.
The reason for the dilution of the power of these images could be the fact that Communism is no longer perceived as a threat, and therefore the spreading of these symbols is not taken as seriously. In the 1950s, the era of McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) arrested those who expressed any kind of leftist sentiment for fear of Communism. This fear gave power to the associated symbols. Now, however, Communism is no longer perceived as an imminent threat to our society; symbols such as the hammer and sickle have lost their power to the point that celebrities can wear them in public. Commodifying these images only serves to further propagate the triumph of Western society after “the end of Communism” and the fall of the Soviet Union.
The act of appropriating images without intent is a signal of the degree to which capitalism pervades Western culture, in which anything and everything can be commodified. This phenomenon is referred to as “late capitalism” in the Marxist community, describing a post Second World War era in which capitalism “permeates all areas of social and cultural life.” When done with intention, commodification can be a form of protest. When done without, it serves to propagate the existence of a meaningless society.