Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2011. 312 pp., £22.95 hb., 978 0 26201 649 0.
Salvador Allende was elected as socialist-Marxist president of Chile on 4 November 1970. The USA soon after initiated an ‘invisible’ financial blockade, which would, when combined with a fall in international copper prices (Chile’s main export), ultimately cripple the Chilean economy, and provide the pretext, slightly less than three years later – on a very different 9/11 – for General Augusto Pinochet, supported by the CIA under instructions from Henry Kissinger and President Nixon, to lead a violent military coup, which ended the lives of Allende and thousands of others. Pinochet reversed the social gains achieved by Allende’s government in its short three-year life, and, as Naomi Klein describes so well in The Shock Doctrine, Chile became the site of the first experiment in neoliberal Chicago School economics.
The story of Allende’s Chile has since become an integral part of the narrative of the Left for several generations of activists. Yet much of the complexity of the story is still to be told, and this new book by Eden Medina provides a welcome addition to the historical account. Medina’s research focuses on the rather unlikely story of a collaborative endeavour between Allende, Fernando Flores – a leading cabinet minister in charge of nationalizing Chile’s industrial sectors – and a British management theorist, Stafford Beer. The project, known as Cybersyn (Proyecto Synco), was an attempt to design a unique ‘political technology’, a transitional programme for implementing democratic socialist economic planning and ‘one of the most ambitious applications of cybernetics in history’. As the organizational form and technological structure through which Allende hoped to achieve La via chilena al socialismo (the Chilean path to socialism), Medina suggests, Cybersyn was seen as a part of a ‘new form of socialist modernity’.
Medina’s account of this project is important for several reasons. As a piece of historiographic work it tells the intersecting story of two Utopian visions – one technological and one political – within a distinctive Latin American context. All too often critical histories of cybernetics have tended to fall back upon almost conspiracy theory-type accounts, based upon US military funding of some US projects. Whilst relevant to some aspects of US cybernetics history, the formulaic projection of a standard critique to an entire complex and highly differentiated field has resulted in significant misreadings. Thankfully more nuanced accounts have begun to emerge, in for example the work of Andrew Pickering, who has focused on the distinctively radical characteristics of the British tendency (see the review of Pickering’s book The Cybernetic Brain in RP 165, January/February 2011). Medina explicitly positions her work as a part of this new historiographic project, noting for example ‘that Chile’s involvement in the history of cybernetics dates almost to the origin of the field suggests that the history of cybernetics played out over a far wider geography than the existing literature has thus far recognized.’ Indeed the fact that this Chilean cybernetic experience was ended by CIA intervention is itself worthy of further comment.
Allende’s election was one of the most radical moments in an evolving Latin American political arena in that period. In the previous decade a Christian Democratic government led by Eduardo Frei Montalva had, under pressure from the Left, initiated a series of reforms, including partial nationalization of some industries and the beginnings of land reform. As these reforms failed in the face of resistance from Chile’s bourgeoisie, the population moved further to the left, and Allende was elected as the leader of a coalition of left parties, under the name Popular Unity. On election Allende announced that Chile would default on all debts owed to international banks and creditors, and the new government embarked on a programme of nationalization, collectivization and land redistribution, taking control of copper industries, finance, health, housing and education. Fernando Flores – a young engineer and academic, and leader of one of the smaller coalition parties – became a senior figure within the Chilean State Development Corporation, an agency set up to manage the nationalization process and its subsequent planning. Flores was already familiar with some of Beer’s work on cybernetic approaches to operations research and management theory, and approached him for advice concerning the process of nationalizing and then reorganizing Chile’s industries, stating in a letter to Beer that Chile was ‘now in a position from which it is possible to implement on a national scale – at which cybernetic thinking becomes a necessity – scientific views on management and organization’.
Flores did not, it seems, realize quite how timely his approach was. Stafford Beer had made a lucrative living applying cybernetic thinking to questions of industrial processes. In a precocious early career he had quickly risen to lead operations management at United Steel (then Europe’s largest steel manufacturer), and later IPC (then the world’s largest publisher). But by his early forties Beer’s politics and research were taking a more radical turn. In a talk given a few months before Flores had contacted him, entitled ‘This Runaway World: Can Man Gain Control?’, Beer stated that ‘What is needed is structural change. Nothing else will do … The more I reflect upon these facts, the more I perceive that the evolutionary approach to adaption in social systems will not work anymore … It has therefore become clear to me over the years that I am advocating revolution.’ In fact, in the year prior to the invitation from Chile, Beer had started work on two innovative models for applying the thinking he had developed from working with industrial organizations to questions of government and social change: the Liberty Machine and the Viable Systems Model (VSM). The VSM in particular is a fascinating piece of work, which Medina takes some time to unpack. Cybernetics in general saw itself as a meta-discipline concerned with understanding the organizational principles of complex systems. It would abstract principles from one area and test them in another. Biological and mechanical systems were treated as paradigmatic sources of organizational metaphors, for example, and this method was a source of both great analytic strength and great potential danger.
In his 1959 book Management and Cybernetics, Beer had suggested that there were three kinds of organized systems active in the world: simple, complex and exceedingly complex. Simple systems – he gave as an example a window latch – are, typically, completely understandable in mechanistic and deterministic terms. Exceedingly complex systems by contradistinction could not be understood in those terms at all, and could only be grasped in probabilistic terms. Examples of exceedingly complex systems for Beer included the brain, the economy, and large social organizations like corporations and governments. Such systems, Beer insisted, could never be deterministically controlled. The challenge, rather, was to find ways of managing in such a condition.
Beer’s VSM was an organizational model which attempted to address just such a scenario. Beer presented it as a diagram based upon the human nervous system, and even in this respect his diagram presents a significant proposition about the nature of planning in human consciousness. There are five primary levels within the VSM, although, as Medina rightly makes clear, whilst this is not a hierarchical model, it is absolutely no flat ontology either. Levels one and four are both connected to the external world, although in different ways (and each producing its own mappings and representations). There is a source of top-down planning in level five, but this is not so much a commanding centre as a semi-autonomous high order abstraction active in the space of the overall distributed system, in such a way that it adds complex organized adaptive feedback into its future possibility space. Medina shows that ‘Beer’s new thinking on management structures’ thus ’embraced the tension between top-down and bottom-up decision making [and] used that tension to increase the stability of the overall organization.’ These new organizational models were suggesting forms of ownership and power relations quite different to anything found in capitalism. It seems that Beer had concluded that global economic and social relations had developed to a level of complexity such that capitalism was no longer a viable system according to his definition. Yet they were also very different to the command structures found in the Soviet Union. It soon became clear to Allende and Flores that ‘from Beer’s perspective, both the LM and VSM could be applied to address the tension between top-down and bottom-up decision making in Chilean socialism and the challenges Chile faced as a developing nation with limited technological resources.’
The actual Cybersyn project was itself a significant technological achievement. At the time US ARPANET was in its very early stages, and was driven to a significant extent by military interests. The USSR had failed in its attempts to develop a strategy for a computer system to help manage a planned economy, and Medina gives a good account of how the very political landscape of the Soviet Union, with the infighting among the swollen bureaucratic class, repeatedly precluded the kind of trans-disciplinarity and even basic trans-departmental technology and data-sharing necessary for functioning experiments. Beer’s team produced the software to outflank both superpowers and developed a real-time communications network control system, organized as a distributed network of telex machines located in factories and community spaces across Chile. Medina notes that ‘this technical system could be engineered in ways that would change Chilean social relationships … presenting ways to increase worker participation in factory management.’ The project’s lasting image is that of a futuristic communications room designed by the State Technology Institute Industrial Design Group (another of Flores’ initiatives). Only one room was completed out of many ultimately planned. The hexagonal room contained seven chairs, each with a control panel which could bring up charts, graphs and images of Chilean production in real time. The interface was designed to be used by workers, and is not some kind of captain’s bridge, as is often imagined. Beer stated that ‘in Chile I know that I am making the maximum effort towards the devolution of power. The government made their revolution about it; I find it good cybernetics.’
Beer stated that he read ‘all the Marxist literature’ prior to his first trip to Chile, and whilst Beer’s experience and conception of using cybernetics to understand social organizations had evolved in a northern hemisphere and Western context (that was, after all, what he was appointed to do), his thinking was transformed not only by the specific unfolding of the Chilean revolution, but also through his encounter with Chile’s own significant cybernetic research traditions, most notably that of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. In fact, their emerging conception of autopoiesis would be key both to the development of the VSM and to Beer’s increasing critique of capitalism. (Beer would also write the key preface to their seminal 1973 publication Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living).
Beer attempted a sketch mapping of Marx’s analysis of capital into a cybernetic framework, which, whilst naive at times, produced some fascinating insights. Notably perhaps, Beer considered that the class struggle as described by Marx ‘represented the situation generated by the industrial revolution itself, but that by the late twentieth century the ability of capitalism to stabilize itself and autopoietically present an internal reality was the key challenge. Beer suggested that the class struggle had evolved through the development of ‘new forms of work and new exploitative relations’, and argued, again incorporating a conception of autopoiesis, that ‘for Marx, capital was evil and the enemy. For us, capital remains evil, but the enemy is STATUS QUO’. It would be fascinating to read Beer’s thinking here in the light of, for example, Lazzarato’s conception of immaterial labour and, indeed, the wider post-operaist rereading of Marx’s ‘general intellect’. Medina does not approach such questions, but she does provide the material for starting such a project.
A struggle emerged between the technologists Beer was working with, whom he felt were excessively devoted to the actual technologies necessary to bring Cybersyn to reality, and were insufficiently focused on the political questions of organizational restructuring and his attempts to involve more Chilean workers in Cybersyn’s development. Beer’s political commitment to Allende’s socialist project was total, and he became increasingly frustrated as the US-led financial blockage started to bite, and as it became increasingly clear, following a failed military coup early in 1973, that the Chilean military were effectively led by the CIA. He came to ask ‘if the final level of societary recursion is capitalistic, in what sense can a lower level of recursion become socialist? … It makes little difference if capital in that socialist country is owned by capitalists whose subject is state controls, or by the state itself in the name of the people, since the power of capital to oppress is effectively wielded by the metasystem.’
Medina notes that while ‘the idea of control is commonly associated with domination’, Beer in fact ‘offered a different definition’, and concludes that, although he ‘was repeatedly criticized for using computers to create top-down control systems’, such criticisms ‘were to some extent ill-informed’. Nor is it the case that this is an example of a Western military-industrial technology imported into and subverting a political movement. Rather, in an important respect the specific demands of the Chilean situation transformed the cybernetic ideas concerning management and organization – and in the process also transformed Beer himself. As Maturana put it: Beer ‘came to Chile a businessman and left a hippie’. Referring to Marx’s essay on ‘The Possibility of Non-violent Revolution’, Medina positions Beer’s work with Allende’s government as a genuine attempt to realize and work through such a scenario and project. It would have been interesting to see the project test it more thoroughly as a transitional programme. Cybersyn was not a futuristic control room, nor was it even an information management system. It was, rather, a study in re-imagining what democratic planning might be. Cybersyn was the means by which a workers’ democracy was to be enacted, and an economy taken through a transitional programme from private capitalism to socialism. Cybersyn was the transitional programme, and to that extent perhaps contains important lessons for us today.