Thursday, June 18, 2020

Redrawing the Cultural Cityscape: The Destiny of Colonial Monuments in Ireland

 are what unite and divide people. Symbols give us our identity, our 
self-image, our way of explaining ourselves to others. Symbols in turn 
determine the kinds of stories we tell; and the stories we tell 
determine the kind of history we make and remake."
Mary Robinson, Inauguration speech as President of Ireland, December 3, 1990

"Dublin is connected with Irish patriotism only by the scaffold and the gallows. Statue and column do indeed rise there, but not to honour the sons of the soil. The public idols are foreign potentates and foreign heroes [...] the Irish people are doomed to see in every place the monument of their subjugation; before the senate house, the statue of their conqueror, within the walls tapestries with the defeats of their fathers. No public statue of an illustrious Irishman has ever graced the Irish Capital. No monument exists to which the gaze of the young Irish children can be directed, while their fathers tell them, 'This was to the glory of your countrymen'."
Dublin University Magazine (1856)

"Grey brick upon brick,
Declamatory bronze
On sombre pedestals –
O’Connell, Grattan, Moore –
And the brewery tugs and the swans
On the balustraded stream
And the bare bones of a fanlight
Over a hungry door
And the air soft on the cheek
And porter running from the taps
With a head of yellow cream
And Nelson on his pillar
Watching his world collapse."

Dublin by Louis MacNeice

On the night of the 8 March 1966 a massive explosion was heard in the centre of Dublin and Nelson's Pillar came crashing to the ground in hundreds of tons of rubble. No one  was hurt and a stump was all that could be seen of the 157 year old monument. It was not the first time that monuments had been attacked in Ireland and certainly not the last, at least figuratively, with a series of later monuments accruing many derogatory nicknames from the Dublin people.

The recent spate of attacks on monuments in the US and the Uk has opened up the debate on the cultural issues they provoke, ranging from those who can't believe the attacks hadn't happened sooner to those who see their destruction as mob vandalism.

Here, as everywhere, the public sphere is a highly contested one and not just culturally. For example, when the Irish Republic unilaterally declared independence in 1919, the Dáil Courts (Republican Courts) were set up, creating for the time being, a parallel (and popular) judicial system that frustrated the colonial power by undermining British rule in Ireland, and continued until independence.

Similarly the imposition of British cultural history in Ireland, through its monuments, was resented and these monuments became the focal point for the beginnings of a new public cultural space after independence. By wiping the slate clean, presumably it was thought, it would be possible to create a new progressive space based on Irish revolutionary figures. However, it did not quite work out like that. As in the political sphere, the public sphere remained a highly contested arena with successive conservative governments using different tactics to defer, reject or hinder progressive sculpture in Dublin.

I will look at the fate of some of these British historical monuments and the possibilities for future monuments that would more accurately reflect Irish peoples' historical struggles for freedom and independence.

'Removing' colonial history

Prince Albert statue

‘Attempt to blow up the Albert Statue, Dublin’ (Illustrated Police News, June 1872)

This early attempt on a Dublin statue followed controversy which saw the statue's location being changed from a central position at College Green, according to Donal Fallon, to finding "itself ultimately in the grounds of the Royal Dublin Society. It may surprise some of you to hear the statue is still in Dublin, though now it is inside the grounds of Leinster House."

Albert Statue in Leinster House grounds (detail).
(Photo by Mick Kenny)

Detail from Albert Statue in Leinster House grounds.
(Photo by Mick Kenny)

Albert Statue in Leinster House grounds.
(Photo by Mick Kenny)

William of Orange (1928)

The William statue was smeared with tar several times

In 1928 the statue of William of Orange (1701–1928) at College Green (in front of Trinity College) was damaged after an explosion on the anniversary of Armistice Day in 1928 and subsequently removed.

Donal Fallon quotes from the brief commentary on the statue that comes from a book, ‘Ireland In Pictures’, dating from 1898: "This equestrian statue of William II stands in College Green, and has stood there, more or less, since A.D 1701. We say “more or less” because no statue in the world, perhaps, has been subject to so many vicissitudes. It has been insulted, mutilated and blown up so many times, that the original figure, never particularly graceful, is now a battered wreck, pieced and patched together, like an old, worn out garment."

Final demolition of William statue (Irish Press 14 September 1945)

As historian Fin Dwyer writes: "If there was one statue that was not going to survive Irish independence this was it. William of Orange defeated James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 and ever since William and his victory has been twisted to suit political circumstances of the day. His victory had been celebrated by Unionists in the provactive 12th of July Parades in Ireland through the 19th century and he became a despised figure for Irish catholics and nationalists who saw William as a symbol of repression and discrimination. In 1929, the inevitable happened and the statue was blown up. Needless to say it wasn’t rebuilt."

FitzGibbon Memorial (1930)

Fitzgibbon Memorial

The memorial to Viscount FitzGibbon at Sarsfield Bridge, Limerick was constructed in 1857. According to the Limerick Post:

"Viscount Fitzgibbon, of Mount Shannon estate near Castleconnell, was reported missing presumed dead during the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘The Man Who Was’ is said to be inspired by him. His statue was blown up in 1930 and a monument to The Easter Rising now stands in its place."

'Young' Queen Victoria (1934)

Victoria statue

According to Professor John A Murphy, UCC: "In August 1849, Queen Victoria witnessed her statue being hoisted on the highest gable of the new Queen’s College, now University College Cork. There it remained until 1934 when it was taken down and replaced by Finbarr, Cork’s patron saint. The Victoria statue was put in storage for some years and then bizarrely buried in what was admittedly UCC’s classiest location, the President’s Garden."

King George II (1937)

King George II equestrian monument

This equestrian monument of King George II in St Stephen's Green (1758–1937) was blown up on 13 May 1937, the day after the coronation of George VI.

King George II unhorsed in 1937

It was unveiled in 1758 and depicted George II in Roman attire. It was placed on a tall pedestal but still 'the victim of many attacks'.

'Old' Queen Victoria (1948)

Statue of Queen Victoria

The statue of Queen Victoria at Leinster House, Kildare Street (1904–1948) was removed in 1948 as part of moves by the Irish State towards declaring a Republic, and eventually shipped to Sydney, Australia in 1987 where it is now on display on the corner of Druitt and George Street in front of the Queen Victoria Building.

The statue in its original location

According to Wikipedia: "The statue sat atop a portland stone column, also designed by Hughes, with three sculptural groups to be placed below – "Fame", "Hibernia at Peace" and "Hibernia at War". This last group was also known as "Erin and the Dying Soldier" and referred to the loyalty demonstrated by Irish soldiers in the Boer War." Also, that "the associated sculptures from the base of the statue are currently in the collection of Dublin Castle."


 One of the sculptural groups from the base in the Leinster House grounds.
(Photo by Mick Kenny)


 The statue in its present location

The anger towards British colonialism in Ireland could be seen in newspaper reports of the time, for example:

"In 1895, The Nation newspaper noted that Irish migrants in New York had celebrated Victoria’s Jubilee with “the most appropriate celebration”, staging demonstrations and distributing political literature to highlight their view that: "some of the benefits conferred upon Ireland during Victoria’s murderous reign: Died of famine 1,500,000; evicted 3,668,000; expatriated 4,200,000; emigrants who died of ship fever, 57,000; imprisoned under the Coercion Acts, over 3,000; butchered in suppressed public meetings, 300; Coercion Acts, 53; executed for resisting tyranny, 95; died in English dungeons, 270; newspapers suppressed, 12."

George Howard (1956)

Carlisle statue

The statue of George Howard (Earl of Carlisle) in the Phoenix Park (1870–1956) was blown off its plinth in an explosion in 1956 and moved to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. The pedestal remains in place as a memorial. George Howard (1802–1864), the 7th Earl of Carlisle, served under Lord Melbourne as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1835 and 1841.

British War Memorial (1957)

British War Memorial

The War Memorial was erected in Pery Square, Limerick in 1929. In an article in the Limerick Post it was stated that:

"President of the British Legion in the Irish Free State Major-General Sir William Hickie, who had commanded the 16th Irish Division in France during the First World War and was therefore well known to and respected by the general body of the Ex-Servicemen present, unveiled the Cross which had been covered with a purple drape, symbolising the sacrifice of the men that the memorial commemorated."

During the early hours of  August 7, 1957 it was destroyed by an explosion.

Gough Monument (1957)

Gough Monument

The Gough Monument in the Phoenix Park (1880–1957) was blown up in 1957, it was later restored and re-erected in the grounds of Chillingham Castle, England, in 1990. Field Marshal Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough (1779–1869) was a British Army officer born at Woodstown, Annacotty, Ireland. Gough's colonial credentials are impeccable, serving British forces in China, India and South Africa where he "commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot during the Peninsular War. After serving as commander-in-chief of the British forces in China during the First Opium War, he became Commander-in-Chief, India and led the British forces in action against the Marathas defeating them decisively at the conclusion of the Gwalior Campaign and then commanded the troops that defeated the Sikhs during both the First Anglo-Sikh War and the Second Anglo-Sikh War."

The attack on the Gough Monument demonstrated that being Irish-born was no guarantee of immunity from denunciation and execration. Indeed, the assaults on colonial monuments also became a subject for Irish writers over subsequent decades too. The well-known Irish writer, Myles na gCopaleen, commented on a previous attack on the Gough monument when it was beheaded on Christmas Eve 1944. Writing in his column, Cruiskeen Lawn in The Irish Times in January 1945, he commented:

"Few people will sympathise with this activity; some think it is simply wrong, others do not understand how anybody could think of getting up in the middle of a frosty night in order to saw the head of a metal statue. [...] The Gough statue in question was a monstrosity, famous only for the disproportion of the horse’s legs, its present headlessness gives it a grim humour and even if the head is recovered, I urge strongly that no attempt should be made to solder it on."

Gough statue head found (Irish Press April 11, 1945)

The head was eventually found in the River Liffey, the main river running through the centre of Dublin. The fate of the Gough statue is also known because of a poem believed to have been written by another Irish writer, Brendan Behan (though some attribute it to poet Vincent Caprani):

"Neath the horse’s prick, a dynamite stick
Some Gallant hero did place
For the cause of our land, with a light in his hand
Bravely the foe he did face.
Then without showing fear, he kept himself clear
Excepting to blow up the pair
But he nearly went crackers, all he got was the knackers
And made the poor stallion a mare."

Nelson's Pillar (1966)

Nelson's Pillar

Nelson's Pillar O'Connell Street (1809–1966) was blown up in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The head of Nelson's statue was rescued, and is currently on display in the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street.

Nelson's Pillar Caretaker, Ireland 1966

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) was a British flag officer in the Royal Navy. His naval victories around Europe, Egypt and the Canaries brought him much fame in Britain and an early death at the age of 47. The remaining stump was blown up by the Irish army to the delight of gathered Dubliners who according to the press "raised a resounding cheer".

British Pathé Nelson Monument Blasted (1966)

Nelson in song

The destruction of the pillar soon became the subject of three songs by The Dubliners, The Go Lucky Four, and The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, respectively.


The Dubliners - Nelson's Farewell

The first called "Nelson's Farewell" was the first single by The Dubliners and was released in 1966 on the label Transatlantic Records. The gist of the song was that because of the explosion, Nelson, atop the pillar, had been launched into space:

"Oh the Russians and the Yanks, with lunar probes they play
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
And I hear the French are trying hard to make up lost headway
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
But now the Irish join the race, we have an astronaut in space
Ireland, boys, is now a world power too"

The Go Lucky Four - Up Went Nelson

Another song was called "Up Went Nelson" (, "set to the tune of "John Brown's Body" and performed by a group of Belfast schoolteachers known as The Go Lucky Four, which remained at the top of the Irish charts for eight weeks":

"One early mornin' in the year of '66
A band of Irish laddies were knockin' up some tricks
They though Horatio Nelson had overstayed a mite
So they helped him on his way with some sticks of gelignite"

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – Lord Nelson

In 1967 The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem released an album titled Freedom's Sons with the song Lord Nelson (

“Lord Nelson stood in pompous state upon his pillar high
And down along O'Connell Street, he cast a wicked eye
He thought how this barbaric race had fought the British crown
Yet they were content to let him stay right here in Dublin town

So remember brave Lord Nelson boys, he had never known defeat
And for his reward, they stuck him up in the middle of O'Connell Street

Well for many years, Lord Nelson stood and no one seemed to care
He'd squint at Dan O'Connell, who was standing right down there
He thought "The Irish like me or they wouldn't let me stay
That is except those blighters that they call the I.R.A."


And then in 1966, on March the seventh day
A bloody great explosion made Lord Nelson rock and sway
He crashed and Dan O'Connell cried in woeful misery
"There are twice as many pigeons now will come and s(h)it on me"

So remember brave lord Nelson boys, he had never known defeat
And for his reward, they blew him up in the middle of O'Connell Street”


Taoiseach and President of Ireland, Eamon DeValera apparently found the explosion amusing:

"Senator David Norris, who thought the bombing ignorant and unnecessary, told RTE: ‘It provoked the only recorded instance of humor in that lugubrious figure, the late President of Ireland Eamon De Valera, who is said to have phoned the Irish Press to suggest a headline ‘British Admiral Leaves Dublin By Air.’"

And Nelson’s head? According to

“What happened to Nelson’s head after the explosion merits a mention. Seven hearty students from the National College of Art and Design reportedly stole it on St. Patrick's Day from a storage shed in Clanbrassil Street. Later they leased the head for over $300 dollars a month to an antique dealer in London for his shop window. Then it reappeared sometime later on the stage of the Olympia Theatre for a concert performance with The Dubliners. After further comical wanderings (which included an unlikely appearance in a ladies' stockings commercial) the high-spirited students finally handed it over to Lady Nelson. It was later stored in the Civic Museum in Dublin and now resides in the Gilbert Library, on Pearse Street where it’s now rarely seen.”


Despite the regularly re-engineered cityscape of Dublin, the way was not cleared for a spate of representations of Irish national heroes. What  was erected tended to be mythologisations of Irish history (the Children of Lir in the Garden of Remembrance, Cú Chulainn in the GPO: see my 1916 article) as if Irish elites feared the posthumous visages of its bravest and the effect their presence might have on the Dublin populace. What revolutionary figures that do exist in statue form (Tone, Emmett, Connolly etc) tend to be tucked away in parks or on side streets while the main bourgeois nationalist heroes stand on large plinths on Dublin's main streets (O'Connell, Parnell etc).

The lack of a major monument on a major street in Dublin commemorating, for example, the Great Hunger or the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation shows that, despite the decades of resistance to an imposed history, we are still not allowed to commemorate our own.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Snowpiercer (2013): The Fate of Capitalism as a Globalist Runaway Train (Eco-Nihilism, Supra-Nationalism, and Societal Collapse)

Director: Bong Joon-ho

"Western countries see the rest of the world as their playing field fit only for exploitation."
Pramoedya Ananta Toer in conversation with Andre Vltchek, in Jakarta, 2004

"The “global playing field” is “level” only from the perspective of the west."
Robert H Wade

Spoiler alert


The success of Bong Joon-ho's film Parasite (2019) has drawn attention to his back catalogue, in particular his first mainly English-language film, Snowpiercer (2013).

Snowpiercer is a fast-paced movie about a train on a global circular train track, set in the future after a climate change engineering experiment goes wrong. Ice cold temperatures freeze the world into a new ice age. The train is designed and run by the magnate Wilford to circumnavigate the planet perpetually. The passengers, the earth's only survivors, are segregated: the elites in the luxurious forward cars and the poorest in the grimy tail compartments.  The tail-enders, led by Curtis, decide to revolt and make a plan to get through the fortified doors of each carriage to take over and control the train. However, after battles with the train guards take a heavy toll on the insurgents, a select few are brought to the front of the train to meet Wilford.

The film encapsulates the class system very cleverly with different classes enjoying very different levels of comfort on the train. The tail-enders revolt was only the latest in a series of failed revolutions on the train. This latest revolutionary failure under Curtis' leadership heralds a change in the tone of the film from violent battle scenes to increasingly decadent and bizarre scenes as he moves through the elite carriages. The disappointing failure of the insurrection seems to have led some film critics to see the film as a depressing metaphor for class struggle. The journey of the survivors through the train to the cockpit seems surreal and pointless after the initial exciting revolutionary exuberance.


Metaphorically speaking
However, a different way of looking at the film might throw some light on the dramatic changes that take place throughout the narrative of the film. And that would be to look at the film, not as a metaphor of class, but as a metaphor of time.

There are many key symbols throughout the film that suggest the train and its carriages are a metaphor for the passage of time, not least that the train itself represents the arrow of time, but also the progress of capitalism through the twentieth century.

That is, a metaphor for the progress and profound changes of the twentieth century that led to climate change, and the attempts to rectify it in the twenty-first century experimental disaster that followed.

Seeing the train as a metaphor of time also clarifies why the narrative changes from a people's uprising to elite decadence. It is a view of the twentieth century which looks at class but does not have a class analysis. What it has instead is a nihilistic ecological analysis which prefers to see the destruction of society itself (and all those who both benefit from it and all those who are exploited by it) rather than face up to global issues of exploitation and injustice. If there is any hope it is rather vaguely put into a reverse biblical Adam and Eve symbolism whereby the survivors return to the earthly Garden of Paradise much chastened by their catastrophic expulsion.

Carriages and Time: Depicting the Twentieth Century

1910s and 1920s: Slum
The film starts with the failed climate engineering 'chemtrails' and moves swiftly to the carriage where the tail-enders, led by Curtis and his second-in-command Edgar, are being overseen by armed militia. The atmosphere is Dickensian as the living quarters resemble slums from the Industrial Revolution. The dirty grey clothes, drawn faces and squalor are straight out of the documentary photography of the early twentieth century and resemble descriptions from Upton Sinclair's extraordinary novel The Jungle (1906) of the meat-packing industry in Chicago. The first three train cars we see depict a ghetto slum, a prison and mortuary, and a factory respectively. In the prison car they release Namgoong, a captive security specialist, and his clairvoyant daughter Yona to open the doors. They enter the factory car that makes their black protein bars ('nutrient gel') and discover the large hoppers are full of cockroaches. This scene could be straight out of The Jungle as Sinclair describes the sausage-making process:

"There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white - it would be doused with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then the rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together."

1930s and 1940s: Fascism
After the shock of seeing the contents of their diet the insurgents move on to the next carriage door. As the doors open they face a large group of burly masked men dressed in black and carrying hatchets. They launch into a bloody battle. This scene is reminiscent of the street battles between workers and fascists in England, Germany and Spain in the 1930s. As if to make the point clearer the hatchets resemble the axe of the fasces, a bound bundle of wooden rods, including an axe with its blade emerging carried by the Roman lictors. (The lictor's main task was to attend as bodyguards to magistrates who held imperium. The axes symbolized the power to carry out capital punishment and became a symbol of the Italian fascists). And the group's leader is called Franco the Elder.

Things get worse as the train goes into a long tunnel while the 'lictors' put on night vision goggles. The complete overpowering of the tail-enders in the dark reminds one of the total war of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Eventually, lit torches are brought up from the back of the train and the rebels overcome the men in black. Despite this victory, the group of insurgents is much weakened and at this point it is decided that Curtis, Namgoong, Yona, skilled fighter Grey, and Tanya and Andrew will go it alone to the top of the train. The revolution is effectively over and a select few are brought forward to meet the elite.

1950s: Self-Sufficiency
The small group are now brought through the fifth car showing a woman knitting in a conservatory listening to classical music. All is quiet as peaceful workers tend to the vegetable plants. The sixth car is an aquarium with a sushi bar. They sit down and have real food for the first time since they got on the train.

The symbolism of Japan at this point in the chronology is interesting as:

"Post-World War II Japan of the 1950s and ’60s saw many changes. It experienced record economic growth and advances in manufacturing and design that resulted in a wealth of goods that fascinated people across the world."

Japan also has significance as an Asian country with a development curve similar to the West. The seventh car is depicted as a fully stocked refrigerated meat section. These cars of fruit, vegetables, and meat could easily represent the post world war nationalist ideology of self-sufficiency, that partly arose out of the war economy, but was soon affected by supranational free trade areas and international free trade agreements. For example:

"In the 19th century, Britain did completely embrace free trade. It was enormously to our advantage to do so, as the workshop of the world, and we imported most of our food by the end of the 19th century. The result was that we nearly starved in two world wars. After the Second World War, we did not make the same mistake; even with the enormous change in tastes and increase in food imports in recent decades, we still produce more than half of what we eat."

The eight car is a classroom where the teacher, a middle class lady dressed in 1950s style clothing, tells the children about the greatness of Wilford and the "sacred engine". The children are taught negative views of the 'Old Worlders' and the 'Tail Sectioners', for example:

"YLFA (8) a sweet little girl with blond pigtails waves her hand at Teacher.  She jumps up without being acknowledged...
YLFA: I heard all Tail Sectioners were lazy dogs who slept all day in their own shit. [...]
YLFA: Old World people were frigging morons who got turned into popsicles!"

Boiled eggs are handed out to the children and the workers. However guns are concealed underneath and the teacher pulls out a machine gun and starts firing at the rebels and is killed. This is a shocking moment revealing the fanaticism and violence of Wilford's supporters.

Curtis' declining group continues through the ninth and tenth car which resemble luxury carriages from the Orient Express. In car 10 they pass by an academic, a dentist and a tailor all busy at work in their compartments.

1960s: Equilibrium
In the eleventh car there is a very plush bar where the elites inhabit their own world in their own older fashion sense.  A staircase leads up to a row of women sitting under typical 1960s hair salon hair-drying chairs. The next car has swimming pools straight out of a 1960s James Bond movie where another gun battle takes place. The 13th car has two rows of individual sauna cubicles. These carriages (from the 5th to the 13th) have a mood of equilibrium and peace where the elites can live undisturbed and the middle classes can enjoy the good life.

1970s and 1980s: Decadence
However, now the rebel group (Curtis, Namgoong, and Yona) enter a disco in the 14th car where we see the middle class youth for the first time dancing and taking drugs. They are kept constantly high and drunk. After the disco they pass through a nightclub VIP room where the drugged out 'zombies' loll about in animal skins oblivious to the drama taking over the train.

1990s and 2000s: Computer Age
This leads them into a carriage lined with banks of computers and large engine cogs turning the wheels of the train. The last carriage for Curtis is the section where Wilford himself resides behind massive metal doors. Here the system is digitised and runs on a perpetual power source. Despite its technological sophistication it still needs children (Tim) from the tail-end of the train to sit in the works as living components of its power generation. The 'perpetual' or 'sacred' engine feeds off the poorest and  youngest to keep going indefinitely, symbolising capitalist dependence on children in the factories and mines of the nineteenth century, and the child labour scandals in the modern factories of today.

Thus the whole train seems to move through time as well as space. From slums to fascism, expansionism to decadence and finally technology and the 1%, the elites on the train promote a hierarchical system and ideology which they believe is 'correct' and 'natural'. As Wilford says to Curtis:

"WILFORD: Curtis, everyone has their own pre-ordained position.
this way and that...and everyone is in it.  Except you.
CURTIS: That’s what people in the best place say to the people in the worst place.
There’s not a soul on this train who wouldn’t trade places with you."

This 'correct' attitude can still be seen among the aristocracy today, as Chris Bryant writes:

"Historically, the British aristocracy’s defining feature was not a noble aspiration to serve the common weal but a desperate desire for self-advancement. They stole land under the pretence of piety in the early middle ages, they seized it by conquest, they expropriated it from the monasteries and they enclosed it for their private use under the pretence of efficiency. They grasped wealth, corruptly carved out their niche at the pinnacle of society and held on to it with a vice-like grip. They endlessly reinforced their own status and enforced deference on others through ostentatiously exorbitant expenditure on palaces, clothing and jewellery. They laid down a strict set of rules for the rest of society, but lived by a different standard. Such was their sense of entitlement that they believed – and persuaded others to believe – that a hierarchical society with them placed firmly and unassailably at the top was the natural order of things. Even to suggest otherwise, they implied, was to shake the foundations of morality."

In Snowpiercer, the train hierarchy is a patriarchal system of which Wilford is the highest priest of the 'sacred' engine and father of all. The whole system is self-reproducing as the children of the middle class and elites are indoctrinated into it from an early age.

Throughout his journey through the cars Namgoong has been collecting the drug Kronole made from hallucinogenic industrial waste which is also highly flammable. He pushes the small blocks together to make a plastic explosive bomb which he uses to blow open a train door. However, the explosive shock waves cause the train to be hit by successively stronger avalanches and is eventually derailed and crashes. Everybody is killed except for Yona and Tim, (as far as we know).

This metaphor for the complete collapse of the whole system (and a catastrophe triggered by an unforeseen event) is typical of modern ecological ideologies that blame the 'greed' of the human race for climate chaos, and not the global class system which exploits natural resources relentlessly, and under which the vast majority of people have to struggle to survive. Thus, ideologically, the working class not only fails to take control of the train (and thereby the system) but is itself destroyed in the train crash.


On a broader level the survival of Yona and Tim has some interesting parallels with Mao's Three Worlds Theory. In the Snowpiercer narrative, the First World [e.g.the US] and Second World [e.g. Europe and Japan] are destroyed while the Third World [e.g. Asia (Yona) and Africa (Tim)] survives to repopulate the world presumably with a more nature-friendly ideology. Thus the survivors become a metaphor for the supra-national entities of Asia and Africa, who, after centuries of colonialism and imperialism (by the First and Second Worlds) cannot be blamed for not investigating the destruction behind them as they walk away.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.