A while ago this colourful metaphor from a reporter of the Washington Post did the rounds on internet. It got flack both for the inappropriately absurd allegory, as well as the oversimplification of a rather complex political situation. But while most of the criticism is aimed at the role of Vladimir Putin as ice cream man (there’s a sentence I didn’t ever expect typing), I find that there is something wrong with every single segment of the parable. Let’s break it down.
Respect To the Man in the Ice Cream Van?
Let’s start with the obvious. Russian president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is being depicted here as a child abductor. A morally repulsive menace disguised as a friendly figure. Although I’m not a fan of VVP, this reduces his person to that of a movie villain. This removes our moral obligation of finding nuance and reduces the differences between Russia and the Western world to nothing but good and evil. It also allows us to all blame on Putin and relieves us of our responsibility to analyse our own mistakes.
Reducing a person to a comic book badguy is easy but not correct. Vladimir Putin used to work a desk job at a KGB office in Eastern Germany. He didn’t dabble in espionage, assassinations or covert ops; he sat in an office and analysed paperwork. When the USSR fell on its ass, he made a career in politics. While in the 1990s Russia was ruled by extravagant oligarchs and flashy rich people with extravagant lifestyles, Putin kept his head down and just did his job. As he grew in power and eventually took over from Boris Yeltsin, he waged war against these nouveau riche and won. Putin is smart and calculating. He tapped into the Soviet nostalgia, made friends with the Orthodox church and centralised power through companies like Gazprom, while sidelining megalomaniacs in Armani suits that wanted to turn Russian into a banana republic. To understand Putin’s popularity is to understand the situation that Russia was in after the Soviet Union fell.
When Mikhail Gorbachev was president, the USSR was in a deep crisis. Bureaucracy, corruption, apostate members and a failing attempt at reforms. The United States used the opportunity to destabilise the former socialist worker’s state even further, and appointed their experts to help Yeltsin and his allies in the saddle. Spurred on by their American allies, Russia chose to get rid of communism in a method of “shock therapy” (Actual terminology used by the US). This resulted in hyperinflation (ten thousand percent), political anarchy and a stockpile of cold war weapons being released in the black market. For years Russia was ruled by thieves, racketeers and oligarchs until Vladimir Putin took care of those. When Russians express their support of Putin, they express relief of being pulled out of that transitional period of anarcho-capitalism, a situation that brought the country to the brink of South American or African situations with rabble rousing paramilitaries, warlords and modern feudalism.
The Best of the Worst
Now, roughly twenty five years later we have an authoritarian, corporatist state with a highly conservative agenda and a jingoistic foreign policy. In many ways it can be compared to republics like the Portuguese Estado Novo during the regime of Antonio Salazar. It’s important to understand the roots of this situation and the alternatives that the Russian people have. The opponents of Putin are often highlighted in the Western press and true innovators but are often old style oligarchs, libertarians or far right nationalists. A lot of Russians are sceptical of Putin but see no other options but neo-Nazis, corrupt playboys and pawns of Europe and the US that want to force feed them liberalism the way they implemented capitalism in the early 1990s.
It’s also for this reason that most Russians don’t trust America. They see the US as the country that made their country collapse under Gorbachev and Yeltsin and keep recruiting former Soviet states for the NATO. They remember Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and John McCain as the ones that openly supported the regime change in Ukraine that put far-right oligarchs in power and see in Donald Trump the first presidential candidate in years that didn’t criticise them and opted for less foreign interference. All of this is highly unreliable out of Trump’s mouth and of course completely out of self-interest and not sympathetic to Russia. But just like their own president, it feels like the least bad out of worse alternatives.
Divorcing the GOP and the Democrats
The second part of the allegory details the relationship of the Republican Party and Democrats. In the make believe world of The Post, they are shown as a married couple that are arguing with each other. The message here is that the two parties are supposed to work together and make their marriage work despite their differences. This is a monumental flaw and a ghastly reactionary viewpoint that basically sums up the problems of the modern capitalist state in one sentence. The notion that the state is a marriage of two highly polarising factions that somehow have to form a federal government by wedging two bureaucratic institutions into each other, is such a baffling short sighted and narrow minded understanding of democracy.
America’s biggest problem is the federal government that has grown into such powerhouse of the elite and a battleground of nepotism and Ivy League Musical Chairs. The result of this process can be dialectically analysed and when we do this, the election of Donald Trump is not a surprise at all. When a small clique of rich elite are controlling a country, at one point their game spirals out of control and the quasi-democracy turns into an oligarchy. Allowing capitalism such a increasing influence on the lives of people and the way society is ran, ultimately the empty capital itself seizes power. This time in the person of Donald J. Trump.
If we want America to be ran in a proper way, then we have to let go of the idea of a two party system. We have to let go of the electoral college and the bureaucratic institutions behind the federal government. Rather than marriage we have to view society as a society, and let society as a whole run every aspect of it democratically. The doctrines and rusty dogmas of the two parties make the marriage antiquated and narrow minded, and completely out of touch with their ‘children’ (more about that later). To stop fighting and, as the Washington Post metaphor states, pay attention to the child being abducted, it has to let go of the idea of this ‘marriage’ all together and let everyone be involved.
Let the states, the cities and the counties be governed by popular assemblies. Small bodies of local citizens that choose representatives among themselves and vote on appointing and dismissing who represents them on state or federal level. A state or county or nation that is run by the people is a nation that is conscious of its people and can’t exclude anyone from its legislature.
Direct democracy faded away in lieu of the rich and established elite, often based on outdated power structures like nobility, feudalism and oligarchy. The electoral college officially has the purpose of preventing demagogues and tyrants from rising to power. But in reality it forms a thick filter between the working people and the elite class and actually facilitate demagogues to maintain their power. In a direct democracy Donald Trump would not have been chosen and he would not have created the sentiment and the frustration that made him appealing to a lot of people in the first place.
Somebody Think of the Children!
This brings me automatically to my final point and the last segment of the allegory. The people of the United States are represented as a child. A kid that can’t fend for itself, doesn’t understand politics and has to be controlled by two quarrelling adults to survive, or it will be abducted by the creepy man in the ice cream van.
The fundamental problem with this, is the infantilization of the people as a helpless child. This is such a glaring lack of respect for the working class and such arrogant view on how a society should be ran. Make no mistake. This is not meant as a jab at federal rule, or an attempt to idealise the Tea Party-like sentiments of libertarianism and anti-welfare state hokum. A state that is run by the people is not a state run by corporations and laissez-faire capitalism, that is a misguided fable that Randians believe is the ultimate result of self-rule and objectivism. A proper people’s republic, led by the working class, there is no room for private property or anarcho capitalism.
This brings us back to the situation in Russia shortly after the fall of communism. This shows us that a state of affairs in which a society degenerates into anarchy, it can not last. It will ultimately sway into the favour of those who are in control of the production. In Russia it fell into the jaws of the alpha wolf Putin. The task of the working people is to prevent demagogues and dictators to from seizing power. This can only happen when they are empowered by the theory and the practical application of socialism.
The tasks of Marxists is to spread knowledge and make the working class familiar with the principles of the revolution, so that they don’t lose faith in society and their role in it. Only with the removal of the bourgeois state and the defeat of the fascists, dictators and anarchy-capitalists, we can give both Russia and the United States back to the people.