What makes a radical icon? Edward Snowden may not look (in spite of this mockup) much like Che Guevara or exhibit the revolutionary hero’s flair for posing with berets, cigars and golf clubs, but that has not discouraged entrepreneurs in Russia and China from bidding for the rights to put the elusive whistleblower’s face on T-shirts and posters. They appear to think his bespectacled, serious visage can become the Guevaresque image of subversion for our time. Are they right?

Revolutionary heroes don’t have to look like Che to make it as poster boys. Karl Marx was a bookish gent with a huge bushy beard but that has not stopped his image decorating many a student bedroom down the years. Even Arthur Scargill once had his admirers. Compared with them, Edward Snowden has many of the conventional properties of a pop-culture icon.

He’s young. He undeniably looks idealistic, which is exciting. In the images in global circulation, grabbed from a Guardian video, he avoids the one facial expression that might undermine his enigma: he doesn’t smile. Pale and committed, he looks like someone who has made a dangerous resolution, as he has. It was reported that while at Moscow airport he read Dostoevsky to pass the time. Of course he did. Dostoevsky’s troubled modern novels mirror the aura of passionate intensity Snowden projects.

Snowden is no Che – but who was Che? A fantasy figure of guerilla violence for an age that preferred its politics drugged up with romantic fantasy. Snowden is an icon for a less deluded era when the true dimensions of power are more apparent and the true risks of dissent more sombrely visible.

To fight the power today you need a laptop, not Che’s gun, and the skills and intelligence to outwit a vast surveillance state. Snowden looks like that guy, because he is that guy. A T-shirt hero? Why not?