Those Guillotines Are Awfully Close to Your Neck

Photo: HomeDespotShop for Etsy/HomeDespotShop

Calls for violent public execution began mere hours into the New Year, as they often do these days, via Twitter. Conservative lawyer Lin Wood proclaimed that Mike Pence would be killed by firing squad for treason. Five days later, Donald Trump’s tornado of zealots blew through the Capitol, erecting gallows and holding posters that read “Make Guillotines Great Again.”

I wasn’t surprised by the violent effigies, but I was, frankly, perplexed to see the Trumpists invoke the guillotine. Their sham-billionaire leader seems exactly the kind of despot the machine was intended for, but most recently, guillotines, as an anti-capitalist symbol, have belonged to the radical left. If you follow anybody interested in income inequality, you may have encountered one or two of them on social media — mostly as a shorthand for class rage. Maybe you’ve seen the recent memes about how to build a guillotine using the $600 stimulus check. They’re darkly funny. And not.

Or perhaps, like me, while searching for novelty holiday gifts on Etsy, you’ve stumbled upon the robust guillotine-accessories market. Sometimes it’s best not to question the algorithm, but lately it seems like these execution devices are everywhere.

The CancelEmpires shop on Etsy sells cheerful posters and pins that say things like “One Slicey Boi” or “Mean New Deal” underneath drawings of guillotines. According to Holly, one of the members of the collective who runs the store, the shop’s guillotine Christmas tree ornaments sold out faster than the group could make them. This came as a bit of a shock to Holly and her friends, who didn’t expect to touch such a nerve when they started the store as a place to share some of the DIY signage they’d been making for protests. She likens the effort to selling handmade stencil tees at a music show.

Once in the world of guillotine posters, I discovered the jewelry. Cast-metal guillotines, guillotines made of shrinky-dink plastic, DIY guillotines soldered from wire. They can be purchased as studs, or dangling pieces, some with heads, some without — customizable in size, available for single ears or to be worn as pendants. Like any great logo, the triangular blade at the top of the simple rectangle design is brilliant in its graphic simplicity. It reproduces well at all sizes — form and function easily understood on a visceral level.

I was slightly unnerved to find this niche, but it turns out that guillotine souvenirs were 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. Children played with small replicas of guillotines. Country folk used them on their tables to slice bread and vegetables. Actually, I’m not sure that makes it less alarming, but at least Etsy didn’t invent the genre.

Guillotines have a ye-olde reputation as revolutionary equalizers, but their brutal history lies a little closer to fascism. Hitler used them to kill more than 16,000 people during his 12-year Reich. That makes guillotines comfortably remote enough to joke about but recent enough to maybe make one a bit queasy. But that’s the point. People who wear guillotine merch want you to feel uncomfortable.

Most leftist references I’ve seen to guillotines don’t actually seem like meaningful threats but social-media-rewards hyperbole. Guillotines can seem absurd in ways that threats of gun violence could never. Somehow it feels less scary to joke about a cumbersome, 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 (a.k.a. @zillotine).

Heather, a 32-year-old maker of abstract guillotine jewelry, estimates that half of the customers who’ve expressed interest see the jewelry as ironic but posits the other half seem very earnest about toppling the moneyed power structures that rule our country.

In that regard, the guillotine earrings fall within a rich punk tradition — meant to ruffle the right feathers in the right way. Another benefit: This is the rare trend that cannot be co-opted by brands. Unlike the way International Women’s Day (a holiday with socialist roots) has been overtaken by corporations and fashion brands, it’s difficult to imagine an “Eat the Rich” campaign for Ralph Lauren. Although one wonders if Urban Outfitters might try.

But it would be naïve to misconstrue every example of the guillotine as an ironic subversion of capitalism.

Marco, a 21-year-old self-described “queer Chicanx anarcho-syndicalist,” maker of elegant wire guillotine earrings, told me he and his friends oppose all unjust forms of hierarchy. He enjoys the thought that rich people might be intimidated by these images. When I asked him if people he knows could be moved to violence for their cause, a tremor ran through his sweet voice. He chose his words with care. “Some. We have theoretical conversations about killing people in power as a big, moral, community question.” He suggested I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

In the first week of 2021, Americans watched as hypothetical violence manifested into real insurrection. The same day I talked to these Etsy sellers, five people were killed in Washington, D.C.

When I first saw the guillotine jewelry, I couldn’t fathom wearing a symbol of capital punishment around my neck. But then I thought about the fact that millions of people wear simulacrums of death every day in the form of simple graphic crosses — the gory origins of the crucifix having long been supplanted by the teachings of its most prominent victim. Perhaps the same will eventually be true of the guillotine. Norms, after all, are just a matter of taste.

*A version of this article appears in the January 18, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Those Guillotines Are Awfully Close to Your Neck