The Samson Complex

Commentary No. 363, Oct. 15, 2013

In the Bible there is a famous story of Samson, who is a hero. There are many interpretations of the meaning of the tale in which Samson, an Israelite, and someone of God-granted strength, pulls down the temple of the (also very strong) enemy Philistines, dying himself in the process. I take it to mean that an act which seems irrational (Samson dies in the process) is both heroic and quite sensible in that it becomes the way (possibly the only way) in which the strong enemy is defeated and his “people” saved.

We seem to have a lot of putative Samsons these days, who are blocking or seeking to block what they consider to be dangerous “compromises” with the enemy. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, is saying that a bad deal is worse than no deal. He is referring to what he sees as the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria and the possible U.S.-Iranian accord. In Colombia, the former Conservative president is inveighing against the current Conservative president because he is negotiating with the guerilla organization known as FARC under the auspices of Cuba and Norway.

And of course we have the massive non-negotiations going on in the United States, in which the Tea Party members of the U.S. Congress, especially in the House of Representatives, are using their strength to veto any compromise with the enemy forces they see to be led by President Obama and the Democratic Party in general, with the collusion of those they consider to be the enemy within, that is, all those Republicans who are calling for some sort of “compromise.”

It is not hard to show that all these Samsons are pulling the house down, not only on the enemy but on themselves. For them, however, even if this is true, it is a matter of timing. They must do it now while they still have the strength to do it. Otherwise, the enemy will win and institutionalize or maintain the evils they see being committed.

This kind of so-called ideological struggle, impervious to so-called pragmatism, has not been invented in the last 10-20 years. It is as old as human socializing. But it takes on a special characteristic now, precisely because we are in the throes of a structural crisis in our capitalist world-system. In a structural crisis, we may expect there to be two massive phenomena – enormous intellectual confusion and, as a consequence, wild swings in sentiment, which in turn leads to even wilder swings.

As there are more and more groups ready to pull the temple down, even as they themselves are crushed, the people who are most confused and uncertain about what to do are the so-called Establishment. Gone are the days when they could cynically maneuver and get their way. No longer is it true that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or, no apparent change is real; it’s all window-dressing, a mere change in personnel.

So, what can we do, if we are searching for real change, a different kind of world-system from the one in which we have been living for at least the past 500 years? The first thing we should do is not get caught up in the debates and wild swings between the Samsons and the Establishments. It doesn’t really matter which of them wins out in the short run.

The second thing we should do is not spend all our energy bemoaning the fact that those who want fundamental change (sometimes called the world left) do not seem to be unified, or clear in their objectives, or engaging in urgent organizing. The fact is that they are caught up in the confusion themselves, at least at the moment.

That the temple is crumbling is a reality far beyond our efforts to hold it up, even if we wanted to. But we are not required to stand under the downpour of rocks. We have to try to escape them. You may be assured that the most powerful members of the Establishment are trying to do so.

But how do we escape them, and to what end? Once again, I insist on a sense of timing, the difference between the short-run (three years or less) and the middle run (the next 20-40 years).

In the short run, people everywhere (the 99%) are suffering. We must struggle to minimize their pain, a struggle that can take multiple forms. It can be pressing for immediate legislation or executive decisions by state agencies that will aid immediately the underclasses, or prevent further damage to the environment, or safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples or so-called social minorities.

But in the middle run, we must try to clarify the nature of the structures we hope to institutionalize if we manage to tilt the bifurcation in our favor. We must try to understand not only the middle-run objectives of the world “right” but the nature of their profound internal splits. The so-called world left is profoundly split too. We must work to overcome this.

Nothing is easy in this time of transition from one world-system to another. But everything is possible – possible but far from certain.


[Note: and edit was made on 10.Nov.2013]