Photo: HomeDespotShop for Etsy / HomeDespotShop
Calls for violent public execution began just hours after the start of the New Year, as they often do these days, via Twitter. Conservative lawyer Lin Wood has proclaimed that Mike Pence will be killed by firing squad for treason. Five days later, the tornado of Donald Trump fanatics blew across the Capitol, erecting gallows and holding posters that read “Make Guillotines Great Again.”
I was not surprised by the violent effigies, but I was, frankly, perplexed to see the Trumpists invoke the guillotine. Their fake billionaire leader seems exactly the kind of bully the machine was intended for, but more recently the guillotines, as an anti-capitalist symbol, have belonged to the radical left. If you follow someone who is interested in income inequality, you may have come across one or two on social media, mostly to denote class rage. Maybe you’ve seen the recent memes on how to build a guillotine using the $ 600 stimulus check. They are terribly funny. And not.
Or maybe, like me, while searching for fancy holiday gifts on Etsy, you’ve come across the robust market for guillotine accessories. Sometimes it’s best not to question the algorithm, but lately it seems like these runners are all over the place.
The CancelEmpires store on Etsy sells posters and merry pins that say things like “One Slicey Boi” or “Mean New Deal” under guillotine designs. According to Holly, one of the collective who runs the store, the store’s guillotine Christmas tree ornaments sold out faster than the group could make. It came as a bit of a shock to Holly and her friends, who weren’t expecting to touch such a nerve when they opened the store to share some of the DIY signage they had created for the protests. She likens the effort to selling hand-made stenciled t-shirts at a music performance.
Once in the world of guillotine posters, I discovered jewelry. Cast metal guillotines, retractable plastic guillotines, DIY guillotines welded from wire. They can be purchased as studs or dangling pieces, some with heads, others without – customizable in size, available for single ears or to be worn as pendants. Like any large logo, the triangular blade at the top of the simple rectangle design is brilliant in its graphic simplicity. It breeds well in all sizes – form and function easily understood at the visceral level.
I was a little pissed off to find this niche, but it turns out that guillotine memorabilia was a thing almost as soon as guillotines were invented. Guillotine earrings were even sold to commemorate the death of Louis XVI in France in the 1790s. The children played with it. small replicas guillotines. The peasants used them on their tables to slice bread and vegetables. Actually, I’m not sure that makes it any less alarming, but at least Etsy didn’t invent the genre.
The guillotines have a reputation for being revolutionary equalizers, but their brutal history is a bit closer to fascism. Hitler used them to kill over 16,000 people during his 12 years Reich. This makes the guillotines far enough apart to be joking, but recent enough to perhaps make them a little uncomfortable. But that’s the point. People who wear sash products want you to feel uncomfortable.
Most of the left-wing references I’ve seen to the guillotines don’t appear to be significant threats, but social media rewards hyperbole. Guillotines can seem absurd in ways that threats of gun violence never could. In a way, it’s less scary to joke about a bulky pre-industrial machine. Many of these jokes appear on Twitter in the form of clever usernames like Marie Ennui: Guillotine Operator, Artisanal Pop-Up Guillotines and the inspired Guillotine-Worthy Zillow Listings (aka @zillotine).
Heather, a 32-year-old abstract guillotine jewelry designer, estimates that half of customers who have expressed interest consider the jewelry ironic, but says the other half seem very serious about overthrowing the silver power structures that rule our country.
In this regard, guillotine earrings are part of a rich punk tradition – believed to ruffle the right feathers in the right way. Another advantage: it is the rare trend that cannot be co-opted by brands. Unlike how International Women’s Day (a holiday with socialist roots) has been overtaken by businesses and fashion brands, it’s hard to imagine an “Eat the Rich” campaign for Ralph Lauren. Although one wonders if Urban Outfitters could give it a try.
But it would be naive to misinterpret all example of the guillotine as an ironic subversion of capitalism.
Marco, a self-proclaimed 21-year-old queer Chicanx anarcho-syndicalist and maker of elegant wire sash earrings, told me that he and his friends oppose all unfair forms of hierarchy. He likes to think that the rich might be intimidated by these images. When I asked him if people he knew could be pressured into violence for their cause, a tremor ran through his soft voice. He chose his words carefully. “Some. We have theoretical conversations about killing people in power as a big moral and community issue.” He suggested that I read Paulo Freire’s one. Pedagogy of the oppressed.
In the first week of 2021, Americans saw a hypothetical violence turn into a full-blown insurgency. On the same day I spoke to these Etsy sellers, five people were killed in Washington, DC
When I first saw the guillotine jewelry, I couldn’t imagine wearing a symbol of capital punishment around my neck. But then I thought about the fact that millions of people wear mock death in the form of simple graphic crosses every day – the bloody origins of the crucifix have long been superseded by the teachings of its most prominent victim. It may be the same for the guillotine. Standards, after all, are a matter of taste.
* A version of this article appears in the January 18, 2021 issue of new York Magazine. Subscribe now!