Is a lock of Che Guevara’s hair worth more than Pol Pot’s Mercedes? Almost everyone from the rapidly dwindling tribe of armchair revolutionaries would say yes. Che has been the icon of the far left, the romantic revolutionary par excellence, not only because of his dashing good looks and black beret perched jauntily on a shock of unruly hair, but also because he died so young while battling the enemy. The memory of Pol Pot, on the other hand, and that of the two million Cambodians he killed, is a big embarrassment for the communists, best brushed under a large and heavy carpet.
Trouble is, Che has also become a huge capitalist icon, with the face that launched a thousand revolutions now helping to sell everything from T-shirts to beer mugs and even bikinis. Small wonder that the lock of Che’s hair, sold recently at a Dallas auction, fetched its owner the handsome sum of $100,000. That’s well above the asking price for Pol Pot’s vehicle, which was listed at $71,800 on online auctioneer eBay.
It’s not just young and romantic dead revolutionaries who are good at selling things. Shops in China selling Mao memorabilia are as ubiquitous as the hammer and sickle used to be and the dour, balding ex-chairman has his face on posters, key rings, plates and clocks. Marc Faber, well-known stock market guru, boasts of owning one of the most extensive collections of Mao busts. Several restaurants have the Great Helmsman as their theme, the House of Mao in Singapore being one of them, complete with propaganda posters and party flags. Cocktails include a Maogarita, Long March Tea and Darling Comrade.
But perhaps Che and Mao wouldn’t be too surprised. After all, wasn’t it Karl Marx who had said long ago of capitalism: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…..”. Or, to put it even more explicitly, “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every activity hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe.”
Capitalism has an amazing capacity to turn everything into a commodity to be bought and sold. You want revolution? Buy a Che T-shirt. Want to show you’re a rebel? Buy that bike, the ad says it’s for “a rebel without a cause”. Want religion? How about this Sri Sri Ravi Shankar key chain? Looking for Nirvana? We know just the resort for you in the Himalayas. Looking for love? How about a Valentine’s Day card? You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Religion and ideology and love are merely items of consumption. In a 1999 paper titled, “Was Mother Teresa maximising her utility?”, authors Susan Kwilecki and Loretta S Wilson had this to say of the Saint of Calcutta: “Mother Teresa is presented, first, as a consumer of religious commodities and an investor in religious human capital, rationally conducting cost-benefit analyses in order to maximise her utility; and second, as the owner of a successful religious firm, seeking to maximise profits.” The article builds on the work of Laurence Iannacone, an American economist who says that the idea is to approach God as a commodity. Jesus, according to this view, was a great religious entrepreneur.
How does capitalism treat its own idols? A site devoted to Ayn Rand not only has the usual caps, T-shirts and stickers, but also a guide to dating by Objectivists (Objectivism being Ms Rand’s philosophy, of which US Federal Reserve ex-chairman Alan Greenspan was an ardent follower). The blurb says that the DVD deals with the “special dating problems that are a result of being an Objectivist.” Hmmm.
Perhaps the only people who have successfully defied commercialisation are those that are perceived to be real threats — all the Osama bin Laden T-shirts on sale in the US demonise the terrorist (one has a picture of Osama with the words, “Have you preyed today?”). In many Islamic countries, on the other hand, the T-shirts are worn as a badge of support. So far, Osama hasn’t completely become a commodity. But there is no doubt that he will.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint