Nothing but Wars and Debauchery: The Enduring Relevance of ‘The Iliad’

An essay on the Iliad by Dave Lordan. Among much else, Dave is the author of the poetry collections, The Boy in the Ring (Salmon Poetry, 2007), which won the Patrick Kavanaugh Award, the Shine/Strong Award, and was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Award; Invitation to a Sacrifice (Salmon Poetry, 2010); Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains (Salmon Poetry, 2014); and Medium (Front Line Press, 2020). With Karl Parkinson, he runs the substack and podcast, Highbrow Heretics.




Have you then deciphered the beginning, that you ask about the end? For where the beginning is, there shall be the end.

~ Jesus Christ


Nothing but wars and debauchery, says Thersites...

~ Karl Marx


Alongside the Bible and Capital, Homer’s Iliad is one of the three key texts for understanding the development, character, and trajectory of western civilisation and the continuous global catastrophe it has led to. Like the Bible and Capital, the Iliad is both a reflection of and an influence on the human world it attempts to describe, analyse, and divine. For both the Bible and Capital, the suffering, destruction, injustice and exploitation endured by the vast bulk of homo sapiens since at least the advent of agriculture and settlement (and thus territory, property, hierarchy, patriarchy, warfare, habitat destruction) is imbued with hope and meaning, leading to redemption in eternal heaven or similarly eternal earthly utopia. Homer offers no such consolation. In what looks very much more like a microcosm of human history than  that contained in its two rival texts, the ruthless warriors of the Iliad slaughter each other furiously in a back and forth of bloody destruction that ends only when nearly everyone is dead and the besieged city of Troy about to be burned to the ground  that is, the Iliad culminates in mutual destruction. The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force,  wrote Judaeo-Christian mystic Simon Weil in 1940:


Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.


Both sides in the Iliad claim proud descent from generation upon generation of even mightier warriors who fought even bloodier wars in the past. The few that survive the ten-year slaughter on the beach are scattered to the Mediterranean winds, to meet doom elsewhere, or to found other bands, other cities, other empires bound to restart the catastrophic cycle at an even higher level of devastation. Such was the influence of the Iliad on the founders of our civilisation that not only the Roman Empire, but such other marauding and merciless brutes as the Franks and the Normans, as well as numerous other smaller medieval kingdoms invented Trojan ancestry for themselves. Together these empires and kingdoms laid the political, social, cultural and ideological foundations and boundaries of the modern West. And the Iliad has continued its determining influence in the formation of our rulers and their strategies down to the present day – most privately educated schoolchildren study the Iliad and learn its lessons in “leadership”, warfare, and political strategy. It still forms a part of the curriculum in the cadet schools of the USA, the UK, France and elsewhere. Boris Johnson, who knows as well as Odysseus how to divide and rule, and as well as Agamemnon how to accumulate personal wealth out of the struggles and sufferings of others, famously recites long passages of the Iliad in the original Greek.

    In the Iliad, the story of humanity is not depicted as a steep yet ineluctable ascent towards a paradisaical zenith, where the good and the just shall be cleansed and remade to live joyfully ever after, as it is in Christianity. Nor is history readable as a series of rupturous breaks that will culminate in a victorious global proletarian revolution, upon which will be founded an eternal fellowship of supermen, as described by Trotsky in Literature and Revolution:


Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonious, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above these heights, new peaks will rise.


How ironic this prophecy now seems, after fifty years of neo-liberalism and hyper-technology have led to reduced global IQs and a widely reported shrinking of the human attention span. We seem to be getting rapidly stupider, not smarter. Moreover, how terrifying  Trotskys prophecy is from an ecological perspective  we would need to destroy thousands of planets, and not just the one we are already destroying, to sustain the billions of Archangels conjured by Trotsky.

    The Iliads vision of the human journey is very different and much closer to what has actually taken place – a spiralling sequence of genocide upon genocide, where one annihilatory cycle is soon followed by another, and another, and another, each succeeding one taking place at a higher level and on greater scale than before, until... well perhaps until there is no-one left to murder or be murdered anymore, and the lone and level sands stretch far away (as Shelley, reacting to the Napoleonic slaughters, envisioned it). Given the extinction-level threats of climate catastrophe, nuclear war, and artificial intelligence we all now face, it is appropriate to examine this fundamental work of literature so ancient and yet so relevant, where we may poke at the seeds of all this horror.

    The Iliad has its origins in mythological cycles stretching back to at least the end of the European Bronze Age around 1200 BC, when a sophisticated Mediterranean civilisation, made up of a variety of powerful empires – now trading with, now warring on each other – collapsed for reasons hotly-debated among archaeologists. It is likely the collapse was caused by multiple, simultaneous catastrophes: what in our day, borrowing from the language of the ancient Greeks, we know as a polycrisis – including war and rebellion; climate change leading to crop failure, drought and burning cities; and raiding invasions emanating from beyond the “civilised” frontiers to the north and the west. The collapse was so total in Greece that little trace was left of the once mighty Mycenaeans; even their alphabet disappeared and writing was lost for centuries – a period known as the Greek Dark Ages.

    During these centuries, culture and memory was maintained orally by bards who memorised, developed, and widely performed lengthy epic cycles of which the Iliad was one of many. The Iliad, depicting a great war with an enemy to the east, was first written down around 700 BC, at the point when it became crucial to unite the various Greek clans and city states to meet emerging threats from similarly reviving and ambitious powers to the east, such as the Phrygians, Lydians, and Medes. The Iliad provided a proto-nationalistic narrative around which a larger Greek identity – and crucially, more sophisticated political and more powerful military structures – could come together. It is for this reason that the Iliad laments the disunity of the Greek bands at Troy; that it represents the eastern enemy of Troy as (almost) equal in power, courage, and ruthlessness to the Greeks themselves; and that it provides an outline of how to maintain a hierarchy and a command structure in the face of military disaster, political disunity at the top, and rebellion from the rank-and-file. As such, the Iliad has been viewed and used as a manual for ruling-class power for going on thirty centuries. It is as critical an orientating document for the ruling class as The Communist Manifesto has been to those who dream of overthrowing class society, only for much longer, and with far greater effect. There is little in the way that political power operates in human hierarchy anywhere or anytime that is not set down as a means of instruction in the Iliad.

    Take the ideological functioning of gods in the Iliad. Pantheons of gods in the ancient world arose simultaneously with the emergence of social hierarchies and class rule, the ruling class often being a priestly caste claiming divinity, demi-divinity, or divine descent. The way the gods are depicted does not tell us anything at all about heaven or the spirit world, but tells us plenty about political exigencies on Planet Earth. For one thing, we see that Agamemnon and the other nobles make similar political use of the gods as contemporary politicians do of  “The Markets”, or occasionally  “The European Commission”. Like the Greek gods, these are the implacable and inscrutable forces to be blamed when anything goes wrong; they are to lend their invincible authority to anything the rulers feel like doing; they are a final authority, against which there is no appeal and to which there is no alternative. When Agamemnon tells his general staff, his cabinet, that he has been instructed by divine intervention, he gains the double luxury of being able to lay the blame for the potential failure of his stratagem on a force beyond his or anyone’s control, and of appearing as someone with superhuman insights and capacities should it happen to succeed. As ever after, the Iliads rulers depict themselves as close to heaven in order to appear invested with an unchallengeable divinity.

    Yet it is in its depiction of how to crush a rebellion that the Iliad has arguably had its most lasting and tragic effect – as a guidebook for ruthless rulers. Book 1 sets the scene. A federation of Greek-speaking city-states is laying siege to Troy, an immensely rich and powerful Hittite city which controls the lucrative trade between eastern and western sections of the ancient world by virtue of its commanding position on the Bosporus. Aside from a common language and geographical origin, the Greek bands are united by a desire to annihilate the enemy, destroy their city, loot their wealth, and rape their women – unity is strength to do evil as well as good. The siege has been ongoing for nine years, and so far the Greek-speakers have nothing to show for it. Morale is sinking and splits are emerging in the army command – chiefly between Agamemnon, the leading general; and Achilles, the most fearsome warrior among the officer class. Their fight is over the division of spoils from the looting of another city, in particular the ownership of a noble female, Briseis, who is now a sex-slave of the Greeks. Achilles withdraws from the battlefield in protest at Agamemnon’s insistence that the sex slave is his to dispose of, not Achilles’s. So the subject of the Iliad at this juncture is not so much the war between the Trojans and the Greeks, but the internecine conflicts within the demoralised and fragmenting Greeks themselves – which threaten a complete loss of discipline leading to a disintegration of the Greek army, handing victory to the Trojans. 

    The question we are left asking at the end of Book 1 is: now that the generals are in open conflict about who gets the spoils of war – with Agamemnon being accused of leading from behind and in effect stealing the loot won by effort of the front-line fighters – how will the rank-and-file, who must fight far harder to get far less, respond? Seeing the treatment of Achilles, a nobleman, upon raising the obvious inequity of the division of spoils, would they not be entirely justified in imitating Achilles and refusing to put their ignoble lives on the line simply to enrich a King who perhaps couldn’t fight his way out of a clay pot himself?

    Book 2 opens with Dream appearing to Agamemnon on an errand from Zeus. Zeus wishes to punish Agamemnon and the Greek forces generally for the dispute with Achilles. Dream appears in the guise of Nestor, an elderly character with much experience of warfare, serving as a trusted military strategist on the war council of the Greeks. Under Zeuss instruction, Dream tells a deadly lie to Agamemnon, informing him that the gods have come down definitively at last on the side of the Greeks and that this very day will see the final destruction of the Trojans and at long last an end to the siege and a total victory for the Greeks. Agamemnon is fooled and starts to plan for an all-out-assault. First, however, he decides, in the wake of yesterday’s mutiny by Achilles, to test the battle readiness and loyalty of his troops with a stratagem, instructing the council of war to spread a rumour of surrender through the ranks and urge them to return to the ships for imminent embarkation and homeward return. He then calls the troops together in assembly and informs them of the surrender, which, of course, he blames on the deceit of the gods. As might be expected, this results in a chaotic stampede for the shore and a break down in order, rank, and discipline. 

    Discipline – meaning obedience to the institutional rules and orders of authority – is obviously of fundamental importance to the rule of minority ruling classes. Without such obedience being the norm throughout the societies over which they reign, minority rule would dissolve. Most important of all is the maintenance, by any means necessary, of military discipline. For, in the last resort, it is the rank-and-file of the army which will be employed to impose discipline on a rebelling population. Without steadfast bodies of armed men to enforce social obedience, ruling classes swiftly fall. The importance of the military to maintaining the overall social order is invisible while that order is stable, but comes more and more sharply into view with every increase in disorder. And yet this very revelation of civilisations secret – that force, not consent, is the heart of class rule – risks further radicalising the population ranged against the rulers, who may come to employ their own counter-force. Military disgruntlement can turn quickly to mutiny, unless it is ruthlessly repressed upon its first appearance.

    And mutiny is just what the old soldier Thersites has in mind. Literatures first communist, Thersites is a well-known grumbler, a rank-and-file satirist who makes his fellow soldiers laugh at their generals and question the whole basis of their authority. He seizes the opportunity of chaos in the ranks to launch into speech we can imagine he had been brewing a long time for just such an occasion:


At the top of his voice he reviled the King: ‘Son of Atreus, what’s your problem now, what more do you need? Your huts are filled with bronze, crowded with women, the pick of the spoils we Achaeans grant you when we sack a city. Is it gold you want now, the ransom for his son some horse-taming Trojan shall bring you out of Ilium, the son that I or some other Achaean have bound and led away? Or a young girl to sleep with, one for you alone? Is it right for our leader to wrong us in this way? Fools, shameful weaklings, Achaean women, since you’re no longer men, home then with our ships, and leave this fellow here, at Troy, to contemplate his prizes, let him learn how much he depends on us, this man who insulted Achilles, a better man than he, by arrogantly snatching his prize. Surely Achilles has a heart free of anger, to accept it; or, son of Atreus, that insolent act would be your last.’


For the very briefest instant within the world of the Iliad, the blatant inequality and injustice of that depicted world is exposed.  More and more of the rank-and-file are gathering, and murmurs of sympathy are all around. Granted, the laying bare of class relations is not put in quite the terms us moderns might like it to be: Thersites appeals to the rank-and-file on basis that they too should benefit from the spoils of conquest and not merely be expected to carry out that conquest in the service of a heroic ideal or a notional nation without receiving substantial and equitable reward for it. Thersitess revolt is not against war itself then, but against the particulars of the organisation of warfare – and so he remains trapped in the logic of devastation that animates any kind of society which engages in organised warfare. 

    Not that the contemporary Left has much to complain about here. The vast bulk of Left intellectuals and Left organisations remain committed to fake “green” solutions to our rapidly unfolding biosphere crisis – promoting the madness of “green energy” and “renewables” and “sustainable industry”; they remain committed, that is, to preserving growth and accumulation and thus remaining trapped within the logic of extinction; forgetting that any kind of growth and any kind of wealth accumulation is, was, and always will be the spoils of a war against The Biosphere, against life itself.

    In any case, the essence of Thersitess radical critique can easily be understood to exceed his own interpretations and designs for it. “Let him learn how much he depends on us….”, he says. Of course, the princely class in Ancient Greece depends as much on “us” , the masses, for the spoils of the home front – agriculture, mining, cottage manufactories in those days – as they do for the spoils of foreign adventurism. Thersites’s moment – and it is but a moment – within the Iliad is allegorical of all such moments of sudden collective revelation of the true nature of social relations. These occur at potentially revolutionary instants throughout human history, and in rare and exceptional cases – such as France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 – can lead, however briefly and messily, to revolutionary events and takeovers. However, in the vast majority of cases, such ruptures with the ordinary run of things are swiftly and brutally repressed. And it is the means of repression employed by the Greek Generals and implicitly recommended by the Iliad which provide even more striking analogy between the politics of supposedly “late” capitalism and those of the actually Late Bronze Age, and of every age in-between.

    The key figure here is Odysseus. Odysseus is obviously best known as the central character of the Odyssey – the Homeric sequel to the Iliad – which narrates his bloodily adventurous ten-year journey back to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. Odysseus is one of the great heroes of the western imperialist literary imagination. Critical and interpretative readings of the Odyssey have almost universally portrayed Odysseus in a benign way, figuring him as an everyman who anticipates the emergence of a certain type of free-roving , self-ruling individual (not mind you as the self-governing rover as a nomad, but as an armed trader, “explorer”, etc)  as the ideal western man. Viewed from below, from the rank-and-file perspective briefly but fiercely illuminated by Thersites, Odysseus is far from an ideal man. Instead, he is a cunning and ruthless aristocratic conqueror who leaves a trail of bodies behind him everywhere he goes  a Caesar, a Cortes, a Cromwell, a Kissinger. When Odysseus finally reaches home, after laying waste to the populations of various Mediterranean islands, he sets about slaughtering by the dozen his domestic political rivals. 

    Needless to say, Odysseus’s massive body count in the pursuit of maintaining himself as a slave-owning aristocrat with the power to kill and plunder as he pleases is hardly ever mentioned in literary studies. He is a strong and courageous warrior, say the Spark Notes– but what might we ask does a warrior do, besides slaughter and plunder? He is a combination of the self-made, self-assured man and the embodiment of the standards and mores of his culture... favoured by the gods and respected and admired by the mortals, waffle the Cliff Notes. But, admired by mortals – really? Perhaps it is just that the ordinary folk are terrified of him, in the same way that one presumes ordinary Mexicans are terrified of the local cartel boss – whom, indeed, Odysseus much resembles. Another way to view Odysseus is as a symbol of the wilful blindness of empire (and its canonical literature, its critics and its reviewers, its intellectual and literary culture in general) to the genocidal crimes which in the past built and in the present sustain that culture of invasion, occupation, devastation. It is a modern day Odysseus who, as I write, is directing the massacre in Gaza, and who next week will be sending out invitations to the Jerusalem Literary Festival. Nowhere is the famous connection between civilisation and barbarism, between the wilfully blind intelligentsia and the dominion of the slaughterers – a connection that structures and maintains  “western civilisation”, and is so obvious in our current affairs – more clearly expressed and anticipated than in the figure of Odysseus, a warrior-hero indeed.

    Though Homer, a blind beggar, had no eyes to see with, he is far less blind than many who today address a public audience. He gives us the tools to figure things out for ourselves if we wish. Look at how he describes the different ways that Odysseus, having being ordered by Divine Athena to restrain the fleeing Greeks, applies that order in the midst of the melee to nobles, as opposed to how he applies it to the rank-and-file:


When he came upon men of birth or rank, he would try to halt them with gentle words, saying: ‘It would be wrong to threaten you, sir, like some common coward, but be seated and make your followers do the same...


But :


When he came upon some common soldier shouting, he drove him back with the sceptre and rebuked him: ‘Sit, man, and hear the words of better men than you; you are weak and lack courage, worthless in war or counsel. All cannot play the king, and a host of leaders is no wise thing. Let us have but the one leader, the one true king, to whom Zeus, the son of Cronos of wily counsel, gave sceptre and command, to rule his people wisely. So with his lordly ways he brought the ranks to heel…


    The maintenance of the Greek war machine depends on the forceful imposition of a strict class hierarchy in and beyond the army. Without this pyramidal class division – with slaves, women, and non-citizens at the bottom; rank-and-file soldiers, scribes, craft and metalworkers, etc, just above these; prince-generals and their courts forming the middle layer; and tapering to “the one true king” at the top – warfare on the scale which took place throughout the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age simply is not possible. This rigid and brutally enforced hierarchy is portrayed by Odysseus as the social embodiment of “wisdom”, i.e. not merely martial necessity, but in line with the highest intellectual insights and spiritual values. Those who rise up against the social order are not only aberrant in the use of their bodies, which by rights should be deployed for the king’s purposes alone, but are also stupid, and evil – deformed in body, mind, and soul. 

    It is to mockery of Thersitess apparent physical deformity – his ugliness a representation of his political and social malevolence – that Homer turns first, setting the reader up for Odysseuss oncoming tirade. Here we have the archetype of one of the principal methods of power and oppression through the ages, the archetype of Hitlers crooked-nosed Jew, of Punch Magazines ape-like Irishman:


He was the ugliest of all who had come to Ilium, bandy-legged and lame of foot; rounded shoulders hunched over his chest; and above them a narrow head with a scant few hairs.


Next we are told that what motivates Thersitess critique of his rulers is envy, resentment. Again, Thersitess problem with being used as spear-fodder is not legitimate, but symptomatic of a disordered personality. Thersites is playing to the crowd – attention-seeking to satisfy the sick longings of his diseased character: baiting the leaders wildly and recklessly, aiming to raise a laugh among the men.

    Thus Homer seeks to poison the audience against Thersites’s critique before it is made, stampeding us towards sympathy with the generals and softening us up for the brutal punishment that will follow. All the same the critique is made, and any reasonable reader could see the justice in it.

    What explains the seeming ambiguity in Homers presentation of Thersites is the dual nature of the audience for epic poetry. The ancient Greek artist-entertainer of 1200-700 AD  – upon whose anonymous labours our civilisation stands or falls – had two types of audience which, if satisfied by the performance, would cough up the coinage or sustenance these largely marginal and impoverished beings required to go on living for another while. First of these is the popular audience, which would have been encountered at regular fairs and on public holidays of the carnival kind. At the fairs, which were earthy, boisterous, and above all mass occasions, we can assume that the Homers emphasised radical and popular elements of the epics, that is the role and the fortunes of the non-princely and non-divine characters. They may even have made implied or direct criticisms of class rule and rulers, against whom there would of been, then as now, many legitimate criticisms which, lacking political forums for expression, found their way into song and tale.

    The other paying audience, and the one which naturally figures most in bourgeois accounts of the Homeric genesis, is that one found in the great halls of princely houses. There were hundreds if not thousands of ‘princes’ in ancient Greece, who ruled over so-called city-states from fortified compounds, and whose income derived from a mixture of taxes, trade, raiding, and slave labour. They ruled through a ruthless warrior-class, whom they compensated with portions of land, slaves, and loot. Obviously any of the Homers who wanted to avoid having their tongue cut out by this audience would have been keen to underplay the divisions and injustices of the realm, and emphasise the greatness of princely houses, especially the one currently being entertained. Since the princely houses were in more or less constant upheaval, and uppity local Achilles types overthrew outmoded local Agamemnons every day of the week, the basic texts of epic cycle were no doubt in a constant state of revision-on-the-hoof. So there were as perhaps as many variations on the oral Iliad as there were Homers, as there were fairs, as there were princes.

    The figure of Thersites and his role and voice in the poem is an artefact of this necessary ambiguity, adaptability, and responsive fluidity in the oral versions of the Iliad. Clearly Thersites can be regarded as heroic or traitorous, depending on one’s class perspective. The particular interpretation would have hinged on something we don’t have access to, which is the way the words of the tale would have been shaped/reshaped and intoned by the tale-singer – this context-dependant artistic choice would have decided whether Thersites would have been mocked or applauded.

    In the textual Iliad that has come down to us, and which was written down on the orders and for the purposes of Kings and Generals, Thersites is allowed to speak for himself only very briefly before the military police arrive, in the form of Odysseus, who declares:


Take care what you say, Thersites, so eloquent, so reckless, take care when you challenge princes, alone. None baser than you followed the Atreidae to Troy, so you least of all should sound a king’s name on your tongue, slandering our leaders, with your eye on home. No one knows how this thing will end, whether we Greeks will return in triumph or no. Go on then, pour scorn on Agamemnon, our leader, the son of Atreus, for the gifts you yourselves gave him: make free with your mockery. But let me tell you this, and be sure: if I find you playing the fool like this again, then let my head be parted from my shoulders, and Telemachus be no son of mine, if I don’t lay hands on you, strip you bare of cloak and tunic, all that hides your nakedness, drive you from here, and send you wailing to the swift ships, shamed by a hail of blows.


Directly after deploying ideological force – that of blackening of Thersitess character – Odysseus applies the discipline of physical force:


So saying, Odysseus, struck with his staff at Thersites’s back and shoulders, and the man cowered and shed a huge tear, as a bloody weal was raised behind by the golden staff. Then terrified, and in pain, he sat, helplessly wiping the tear from his eye.


The ripple effect of this object lesson in power transforms the gathered rank-and-file from supporters of Thersites to opponents, from potential mutineers to cowed arse-lickers once again:


Then the Achaeans, despite their discontent, mocked him ruthlessly. ‘There,’ cried one to his neighbour, ‘Odysseus is ever a one for fine deeds, clever in counsel, and strategy, but this is surely the best thing he’s done for us Greeks, in shutting this scurrilous babbler’s mouth. I think Thersites’s proud spirit will shrink from ever again abusing kings with his foul words.’


He is clever in counsel, and strategy, indeed! Countless are the times when such a double whack – dehumanisation and the welt of physical power – have been employed since by those in power and those seeking it. The order is important. One must first publicly vilify the mutinous or undesirable before one moves in for the kill. It is the exact strategy of the Far-Right when it comes to trans people or immigrants; of Trump and all who sail in him when it comes to any sort of opponent; of Big Oil when it comes to eco-activists; and, perhaps most obviously and tragically of all, it is the modus operandi of the Israeli apartheid state when carrying out its genocide against the Palestinian people.

    What can people of insight, hope and rage – those Thersiteses of today – learn from the Iliad? What productive inquiries into our present situation, and the likelihood of overcoming it, might the Iliad provoke? We might ask first why a text which lies so clearly and profoundly at the root of the formation and reproduction of ruling class power – operating as the essential guidebook for minority rule in times of war abroad and rebellion at home, at least in the west, for going on three millennia – is so profoundly absent from the canon of revolutionary analyses. Why this blind spot?

    We get a clue from one of Marxs few mentions of the Iliad, in the Grundrisse, where he asks:


Is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish?


The trouble is that the necessary conditions of epic poetry – competition and warfare between expansionist ruling classes, who must ruthlessly control their own populations, and need a disciplinary doctrine in order to achieve both expansion and control – have not at all vanished. They have spread and intensified and, with the seemingly uncontrollable development of the forces of production, have now come to a climax that threatens to destroy all life on planet earth. Who is Achilles, but the embodiment of a slaughter machine that has only increased in intensity and murderous capacity? And have songs and sagas really “come to an end”? Even in Marxs own day this was an absurdly a-historical pronouncement. Can anyone who has heard of Spotify or subscribed to Netflix have missed the continuing centrality of song and saga – however warped or sanitised or repackaged – to human life? The suffering Irish masses of the 19th century produced neither novels nor stage plays. Like most of the planet even today they had no access to the technology or accumulations of capital required to produce and distribute culture at the latest stage or the highest level. They did have song and saga though, and I wonder which you think is the most vital, the most memorable, the most relevant cultural heritage – the tedious novels of Edgeworth and Carleton, or the numerous street and rebel ballads kept alive and constantly renewed by innumerable Homers in our village pubs (and the Irish clubs of the diaspora)? Which has had more influence on Irish history, culture, and identity – The Absentee or Spancil Hill? Very few in 19th century Ireland read novels, but practically everybody sang; were these latter really the inferior beings?

    Marx's blind faith in the idea that history was a stairway we climbed on the way to, if not heaven, something that sounds very like it – fully-automated luxury communism, perhaps – made him and the entire Marxist tradition that has followed him worship technology and technological products, always equating more with better, and believing that more efficient and more productive machines capable of ever greater levels of exploitation and biospherical destruction were superior to the human-level processes and practices that preceded them; and which in fact, despite his silly faith, continued and still continue to live and thrive alongside them. Now that our drive for more and better has led us to the brink of extinction, it might be time to consider a thorough revision and a whole-hearted rejection of the stages theory of history.

    What transcends every stage in the development of the forces and relations of production is far more important in the long run than what each stage adds to the mix. The medium may change, transforming from the unrepeatable individual voice, to instantaneous digital reproduction across millions of smartphones, but The Song Remains The Same. Put simply, what threatens us now with the ultimate catastrophe and has been present since the very beginning of history is the seemingly insuperable drive to accumulate, alongside the ever-growing power of annihilation this drive grants to technology and the ruling classes that control technology. This power of annihilation is the measure of what Simone Weil calls Force  our ability to destroy, ourselves and our biosphere  our capacity to turn life into death:


To define force — it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all...


Weil wrote this before The Bomb. We live in time where the X of force has been squared, cubed, and quadrupled so many times over that its power has become effectively infinite.  Not merely our fellow humans are in line to be necrotised by war and exploitation, but everything that lives. The Biosphere was here, and the next minute there was no biosphere at all... the lone and level sands stretch far away. This genocidal and ultimately gaiacidal dynamic that Thersites was the first to name, if it is not a fundament of human nature, is at the very least the core element of human history, whether we choose to focus on Ancient Greece, Medieval China, or Silicon Valley. 

    If we or our living planet are to survive we are going to have to root this out of ourselves, and our societies, swiftly and en masse. This means the end of equating socialism with increasing material wealth, increased technological convenience, increased access to accumulatory capital for everyone – the old, dead dream of Tony Cliff who famously equated socialism with one word – more. It means not taking over the forces of production but abandoning them and destroying them – planting forests where factories used to be, handing our cities over to the foxes and the gulls (and the sea-life that will soon follow them as the oceans now inevitably rise). It means the heart of any progressive politics or genuinely revolutionary movement – upon whose decisions and actions now rests the heavy responsibility of the very survival of the species – has to be radical degrowth and the complete undoing of the industrial era and all of its annihilatory legacies.

    Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible, graffitied the situationists of 68. And they were right, as Thersites was right to stand on the beaches of Troy against impossible odds, and both have never been more right than now. Of course it is impossible to decouple our post-industrial species from technological dependence, but it is also the only realistic chance we have of surviving that tragic dependence, that abysmal decline. How and whether we manage to square that circle will decide everything.


*All quotations from the Iliad are taken from this this (online) edition, translated by A. S. Kline.

Dave Lordan // March 2024