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Caracas and the ‘Uncanny Valley’ of Socialism

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I can’t eat veggie dogs. They are kind of like meat, but aren’t. Their texture and taste are almost correct, but not quite—and therein lies the problem.

If the veggie dogs didn’t come so close to meeting my expectations for real meat, I’d be much more forgiving (as I tend to be with garden burgers). But when the texture and taste approximate meat too much, I’m less willing to accept even the smallest variation that makes me realize that I am, in fact, eating something other than the food my brain is expecting. I extend this almost-but-not-quite principle throughout my diet eschewing, as a general rule, carob-based chocolate, seitan chicken, and non-dairy ice cream. Apparently my reaction to almost-but-not-quite foods has a name, it’s a reaction to something called the “uncanny valley.

Coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, the term “uncanny valley” is a translation of the Japanese phrase bukimi no tani, which Moti used to describe the phenomena of human reactions to robots and objects as they begin to look more and more human and realistic. Mori theorized that as robots came increasingly to resemble humans, there would be a point at which they so closely approximated people that the smallest variances distinguishing them from humans would lead to tremendous unease and disgust among people who interact with them. He theorized that at first, when robots looked like machines (think “Lost in Space”) people would have a flatline response to them, that is,they’d be indifferent emotionally.

As robots begin to look more like caricatured and thus “cute” humans, with exaggerated features, our affinity for them, according to the theory, would rise. As robots moved from this point to actually resembling but failing completely to mimic humans, Mori wrote, people instinctively would feel an eeriness, disgust, and unease with them. After a certain point real humans would be put off by the imperfections that gave away the fact that the robots were not human. This area is called the uncanny valley.

As events in Venezuela unfold, leftists everywhere are faced with an uncanny valley of their own.

As President Nicolás Maduro’s heavy vehicles run over civilians, as his soldiers and paramilitary street thugs shoot live ammunition into disarmed crowds of hungry, tattered protestors who clamor for freedom and food, would-be socialists everywhere suddenly are disgusted by the events on the ground and stare into the uncanny valley, repeating over and again: But this isn’t real socialism.

The socialist utopias they envision from the privileged and luxurious mountaintops of their expectations come into stark contrast with the path through the uncanny valley of reality.

It is too easy to dismiss these arguments as the classic appeal to purity (referred to as the “no true Scotsman” fallacy to academic types). But there’s more to the argument than merely the shifting goalposts of mythical utopianism. The attempt to say “it isn’t real socialism” every time socialism fails is rooted in the self-deception necessary to continue utopian thinking despite overwhelming real-world evidence of failure and abuse. Its to recoil from the uncanny valley that arises as countries move towards planned economies, between imagined utopia and the real violence necessary to implement it.

The attempt to say “that wasn’t real socialism,” is based on the revulsion created among socialism’s adherents when they have to own up to the fact that to reach “real socialism,” tyrannical force is always necessary.

Friedrich Hayek observed, “Socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove.” The true difficulty for socialism’s privileged cheerleaders lies in the fact that as societies move closer to “real socialism”—with planned economies, nationalization of industry and resources, government control over the means of production—it becomes obvious that those societies will, by necessity, need to enforce the imposition of “real socialism” in very illiberal, undemocratic, and cruel ways.

Disarmament of the populace, speech laws, political violence, suppression of political opposition, government control of media—these phenomena always emerge as a societies drive towards “real socialism.”  Like the three wise monkeys, socialists everywhere don’t want to see, hear, or speak of this. Their difficulty with socialism’s uncanny valley is not that the excesses of socialism aren’t “real” socialism, but rather that they are.

Before robots resemble humans too much to enter the uncanny valley, the theory posits, our affinity for them grows. The big ears, eyes and anime-look of them are endearing, it is only when they really start to resemble humans that we feel a sense of awkwardness and disgust.

Similarly, socialism’s cheerleaders are enamored of socialism-lite market economies but they become disgusted as real socialism emerges. They are all too willing to embrace free markets that have the smallest resemblances to socialism, while distancing themselves from countries that have come closer than any in history to implementing “real socialism.”

Advocates of socialism, like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.),  and their followers point to Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark—market economies all—as exemplars of socialism. They even held up Venezuela as a socialist success, before things got bad. Simultaneously, they disavow, as “not true socialism” the planned economies of the old Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cambodia, and present-day Venezuela.

They’re trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, embracing the free-market economies with large social welfare programs as “socialist” (despite being told, over and again they’re not) while, on the other, dismissing centrally planned socialist economies as “not real socialism.’”

As countries like Venezuela move into socialism’s uncanny valley, where, after living on, and invariably depleting the fumes of capitalist success, they begin increasingly to resemble “real socialism”—with its planned economy, government control of production and resources, food scarcity, repression, government violence and totalitarianism—it is important to point out to would-be advocates that their uncanny valley revulsion with the state of affairs is not that Venezuela’s totalitarianism is “not true socialism,” but rather that it is exactly what socialism is.

Photo Credit: Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images