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Selling Che: the commodification of a communist icon

Written by Jayden Glen, for an assignment on ‘communicating, consuming, and commodifying evil and suffering’, in ANTH424

Images are powerful. They can inspire fear, love and even sadness. As the common saying goes, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. But images can be manipulated out of their original context, and be used to enforce values against their original intention, as shown by the commercial circulation of images of Che Guevara.

Image retrieved from accessed 29/03/19

Giving Context to the Iconic Image

The Guerrillero Heroico or the “Heroic Guerrilla Fighter”, is an iconic photo of Che Guevara, an Argentine Marxist revolutionary from mid 1900’s Cuba.

Guevara fought for communism in Cuba, becoming a strong symbol of the revolution. He remains controversial because of the many extreme measures he took in this fight, despite being widely revered. This iconic picture of him was taken by Alberto Korda on March 5th 1960, during a funeral service for lives lost as a result of the explosion of a munitions freight boat.[1]

The photographer was, at the time, working for the Cuban newspaper Revolución. Koda explained that he was struck by Che Guevara’s powerful expression, a stare over the crowd that showed “absolute implacability”, anger and pain.[1] The newspaper never printed this photo in its coverage of the service, but Koda held on to the portrait in his own studio.[1]

It become “viral” in 1967 when Koda gave two prints to an Italian, who published it for the Cuban government. The photo then began to show up all over the world – particularly in magazines and newspaper, and then in popular culture, such as the colour poster done by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick.[1]

Che’s later execution in October 1967 cemented his place in history, and this photo in particular would immortalize Che in popular culture too.[1] But I argue that the commercialisation of his image is itself evil, as it goes against the morals that he embodied.

The evil nature of commodifying Che             

In popular culture Che Guevara’s face has become a symbol for “the power of individual expression”, reinforcing ideas of resistance to conformity and oppression.[2] These ideas resonated with many people and groups at the time, and continue to do so today. In fact, stylised as it often is into a stencil/pop-art look, as a cultural artefact the “Heroic Guerrilla Fighter” has become one of the most popular and marketable images of all time.

Screenshot of some of the merchandise available from, where as we can see Che Guevara’s image and other images of communism being used for profit.

Many (though not all) people may purchase these items because they share a degree of resonance with Che’s political philosophies. But the irony is that  “Che would have used the royalties from any such commercial ventures to destroy the social and economic system that produced them”.[2]

The mass consumption of Che’s imagery, I believe, is reflective of what is termed “disordered capitalism”, a term used to describe how aspects of morality and politics are now intertwined with the commercial.[3] This is most observable is in the commodification of suffering, where “experiences of atrocity and abuse” have become highly profitable. This applies to the marketization of Guevara’s image primarily because his global profile occurred after his death – via execution. The significance and viral popularity, implicitly references this.

Che devoted his life to fighting against a capitalist system that in his view was significantly destroying the way of life of poorer people. As well as making money off his martyrdom to this cause, commodification of his image ignores the pain and suffering he endured through his revolutionary campaign while alive, and  ignores the suffering of the people he fought for.

From an anthropological lens, this is also a case of global and local systems interacting. The image is consumed by global ‘fans’ and profited on by companies in many other countries. But the sale of his image undermines the political and ideological value that he has as a symbol to Cuban citizens in particular. The commodification of his image shows an attempt to disempower his communistic ideals.

In their analysis of suffering and its representation in media, Kleinman and Kleinman discuss suffering as “one of the existential grounds of human experience”.[3] But in a saturated media age, they argue that North American society has become de-sensitized to images of trauma.[3] Moreover many engagements with the suffering of others, via the media, are as part of a commodified system where cultural capital is gained through the presentation and circulation of trauma stories. So much so that complicated stories are reduced “to a core cultural image of victimization”.[3]  Stories like Che Guevara’s become lost in an over saturation of his image, and other images of suffering – removed from context and significance, now bearing cultural and economic capital but losing moral and political potency.

A moral use of images

Image retrieved from: accessed 8/04/19

Frosh’s (2018) work on the way a sense of moral obligations can shape public interactions with stories and images of suffering, can help further unpack the complexities of commodifying and consuming Che Guevara’s image. In his study of Holocaust survivor testimonies, Frosh [4] reinforces that through the production and consumption of these testimonies through digital sites, individuals express and experience a “moral obligation to the past and to the dead”.

Can the same be said of Che Guevara? Should there not be a moral obligation to preserve the mindset and values of this deceased man? If so, should it be via consuming his image as a product, or by refusing to?

There are other reasons of course why this image may be rejected. Che is controversial because while he was viewed by a freedom fighter and hero by Cubans oppressed by the capitalist system of the time, he was also seen as a violent extremist and dictator: in the pursuit of revolution and freedom.

While there are many valid arguments against the man himself as, it is important to stress that even men perceived as evil can generate genuine love and admiration from people. Che is treated with and regarded as a Saint in some parts of the world due to his fight against oppressive and demeaning forces of capitalism – for example in Bolivia, where many worship him as “Saint Ernesto”, or in Cuba, where residents of Havana worship and pray to “Saint Che” by lighting a candle.[5]

As well as obligations to the dead, Frosh talks about obligations to the witness-survivor. In relation to Che Guevara, this could be examined in relation focused toward those that continue to praise and revere Che as a central part of their political ideology, and their real and personal history – in Cuba in particular, but also further afield.[4] This includes those who fought with him and for his cause, and continue to today. It includes intellectuals, workers and students.

We can apply Frosh’s idea to highlight a moral obligation to those living people connected to Che Guevara – those that remember and revere him. Including those Cubans that Che attempted to save as they were belittled and demeaned by an oppressive capitalist system. How would this additional layer of obligation be enacted, in our engagement with this image?

Concluding (and condemning)

Image retrieved from: https: // accessed 8/4/19

Che Guevara was (and is) a controversial and influential figure. In examining the use of his image I have demonstrated the complexity of moral engagements with iconic political images such as this.

As a man he fought against capitalistic ideals, and has become a cultural icon. As a cultural artefact, his image on merchandise becomes a site of contention considering the moral obligations we not only have to the dead but also the living.

While debate about the evilness of Che the man remains prevalent, I conclude with the assertion that the capitalistic capture of his image for monetary gain is truly evil regardless.


[1] Meltzer, S. (2013). The extraordinary story behind the iconic image of Che Guevara and the photographer who took it. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019].

[2] McCormick, G. (1997). Che Guevara: The Legacy of a Revolutionary Man. World Policy Journal, [online] 14(4), pp.63-79. Available at: [Accessed 26 Mar. 2019]. [64]

[3] Kleinman, A. & Kleinman, J. (1996). ‘The appeal of experience; the dismay of images: Cultural appropriations of suffering in our times.’ Daedalus, 125 (1): 1–24. [8; 1; 9; 10]

[4] Frosh, P. (2016) ‘The mouse, the screen and the Holocaust witness: Interface aesthetics and moral response’, New media and society. Sage Publications, 20(1): 351–368 [ pg.353]

[5] Lazo, O. (2016). The Story Behind Che’s Iconic Photo. [online] Smithsonian. Available at: [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019].

Speaking to Socks: An Anthropologist gets KonMari-ed

Marie Kondo’s 2014 book, which was a #1 New York Times Bestseller, is reaching new fame through a Netflix TV series in 2019.

Three years ago, I (an anthropologist, feminist, mother, and wife) bought a book. The book was The Life Changing Magic of Tidying.  

I read it. I loved it. I sorted my entire house and started folding things for the first time in years. Then I tucked the book into the far corner of a bookshelf and quietly kept folding.

Now suddenly it is cool, and I can come out of the (miraculously tidy) closet as a fan of Marie Kondo.

An image of my husband’s socks and undies drawer, which I ‘Kondo-ed’ last weekend. Am I a bad feminist, or a good wife? No idea, but it sure was satisfying. NB. Marie recommends folding socks and storing upright… ‘balled up’ socks are angsty socks!



On the electric updraft from the Netflix ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ special, there has been a frenzy of decluttering across New Zealand. There are reports of op-shops closing under a flood of donated goods.  Kitchens cupboards across the country have never been so organised. Garages have never seemed so spacious. Folding is at an all-time high. 

Having run out of drawers to tidy myself, I thought it was time to put on my anthropology hat for a moment and ask: Does this craze mean anything? What is it about a small cheerful Japanese woman who speaks to socks, that is also resonating so deeply in the USA, and NZ, at this moment?

Decluttering the context: gender, class, and the ‘spirit’ of things

Let’s be clear, there is a gendered component to this trend: and I’ll admit the amount of thought I give to stratagizing about the organisation and maintenance of my home gives me mixed feelings as a feminist. The burden of both physical and mental labour to do with the house is typically female. There is also a classed component: the ability to buy, the types of things we buy, and how we view material possessions in relation to both identity and security, in socioeconomic categories and inequalities. Not to mention where and how we are housed. It’s fair to view the success of KonMarie as a largely middle-class female phenomena.

It is interesting too though, how a method that in many ways relates to Asian apartment-style living became so successfully exportable to the USA, NZ, and many other western nations. The geographic component seems no obstacle, but is there a something deeper: a cultural component? And how does it translate?

It seems to me that Marie’s method draws on distinctly Japanese (or at very least, non-European) ways of seeing the world. Particularly what could be broadly called ‘animism’, which is a belief in the aliveness, the ‘essence’ of both sentient and non-sentient things. Animism allows that animals, trees, rocks, mountains, rivers… and yes, socks… all have a ‘spirit’.

This approach to paves the way for a holism that sees our material life as entangled with our own physical, spiritual, and social wellbeing and success.

“What I’d like you to remember as you go through this process is that you’re not alone, the house itself and all your belongings are there to support you and go with you”  – Marie to recently-widowed Margie (from ‘Sparking Joy after a loss: episode * in ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’ (Netflix 2019).

So I’m interested to ask now more than ever: in the traditionally dualist or materialist ‘West’, what is drawing us to (or driving us to?) this more animist way of understanding material life?

Joy! (and the dogs of dread on its heels)

Marie Kondo’s central mantra is to surround yourself with only things that ‘spark joy’. Doesn’t that sound delightful? But I think it’s uptake makes most sense when we recognise that material things in many people’s homes, in their amount if not their nature, sparks not joy but shame, anger, dread and exhaustion.

A relatively small pile compared to some of the mountains features in the Netflix show. Image source:

Indeed the ‘pile it all up’ part of Marie’s method is designed to confront, and motivate. It certainly highlights the troubling excesses of capitalist consumer society (though that is hopefully news to no-one). This is where the Netflix show grabs me. Watching the mothers, the widows, the retirees – their struggle, their suffocation. Then eventually, their relief.

Honestly I am myself light-years from being a minimalist, before OR after Marie Kondo upends my home. In fact it  is the persistence and constancy of clutter in my life brings, it’s crushing weight, that most draws me to KonMari.

One of iteration of memes emerging around Marie Kondo. Source:

I believe that the way ‘we’ (middle-class folk in developed countries) experience this material crisis of clutter in our homes is in its own way, as an existential crisis. I think that the frustration and paralysis about stuff, and what to do with it, goes far beyond being a practical concern. Rather it embodies deep uncertainties about moral ways of living and being; of relating between both present and absent family members; of reconciling past, present, and imagined futures, in our homes and our lives. It is in this context that KonMari method appears as such a shining salvation… a gently charted path (with a cheerful guide) through a minefield of shame, uncertainty, and kitchen appliances.

Certainly when I think about it, it’s not the meaningless-ness of the stuff in my home that bothers me, it’s its meaningfulness. In fact it makes me question the taken-for-granted connection between materialism and individualism. So much of the stuff that entangles us is not because of any innate qualities of the things themselves. It’s not only stuff we bought, but stuff we were given. Stuff we inherited, or hope to pass on. Things that represent who we were, or who we want to be. Things we like to show off, things we want to forget are even there. It’s about social relationships, and identities, memories and hopes and connections. It’s not really material at all. Or individual.  

The KonMari method simply lets us acknowledge that. It asks us to feel that, in fact –   intimately, as we hold each item in our hands. It reminds us that our homes and our possessions have a history: a social quality and an experiential one. Why not call it a ‘spirit’? Why not speak to it when we want to make a change? It might just work, and here is why…

Why it works: Ritual, emotion, and behaviour

Ritual is a powerful tool for dealing with emotion, and it is sprinkled all throughout the KonMari method: Greeting a house. Feeling a casserole dish. Waking up piles of books. Thanking a pair of socks.

Rituals by definition are actions that carry shared meaning. But they don’t just solidify existing meanings – they can also change them. Rituals are often used to transition things (and people) between different categories.  So even a small moment of saying ‘thank you’ to used items can make it easier to mentally move them from the category of ‘possession’ to that of ‘donation’ or ‘trash’, which in turns makes it easier to change our behaviour towards it. To let it go. This works for items we keep as well – rituals of holding, feeling joy, and even folding can and do have the ability to change and how those items will be treated and experienced by their owners.

As an avid second-hand shopper, my wardrobe has always been particularly out of control, but I enjoy my clothes more now not only because I have less and can actually see them in the wardrobe, but because I value them more. They don’t just have functional value, but each one is deliberately chosen, treasured. I find I also think twice before I buy more because I know and value what I have. Also when I do farewell an item I can recognise what it has already given me, rather than feeling guilty.

In this way the KonMarie method is not ‘anti-stuff’ at all. Quite the opposite… it teaches a love, connection, and attachment to material life that seems antithetical to goals of decluttering, but isn’t. It opens a space that paradoxically begins to bring an almost hedonism, to minimalism – but one distinct from the excesses of consumerism.

Image result for marie kondo netflix

Marie Kondo. Image source:!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_780/marie-kondo.jpg

When a drawer closes, a window opens…

A summary of these brief anthropological thoughts would be this: Emerging from a Japanese context, the KonMari method is somehow also a timely response to western existential crises of clutter (that are moral, as well as material). Yes it is practical, but it is more than that.

With a persistent cheer and a handful of quiet rituals, Marie is opening a small window in the stuffy room of western rationality. Her methods let us acknowledge our relationship to places and things at the level of affect and being. To both hold on, and let go, with joy.

And with happier socks.