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Anarchist cybernetics and the "Viable Systems Model" of Stafford Beers

I had no idea of this aspect of Allende's Chile:

While research on cybernetics [the study of feedback, communication and self-regulation in biological and mechanical systems] began during the Second World War and was properly formalized by Norbert Wiener (in his book Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, published in 1948) it is to a later cybernetician that I want to turn in identifying the similarities between organizational cybernetics and anarchism. Stafford Beer developed his account of cybernetics while working in the steel industry in the UK in the 1950s. Despite little formal education in engineering, mathematics or other sciences, Beer made a name for himself internationally with the publication of Cybernetics and Management in 1959.

It was on the basis of this book that he was invited in 1970 to assist Salvador Allende’s newly-elected socialist government modernize and rationalize the Chilean economy. Thus followed arguably the most important period in the development of cybernetics as Project Cybersyn, as it became known, brought together the political principles of Allende’s government with Beer’s approach to effective organization. Central to the whole process was autonomy: the autonomy of different parts of the economy (factories and other enterprises), networked together using telex machines and a single central computer used for processing information received from these individual parts.

While the project was cut short by the US-backed coup in September 1973, ...

And no wonder! The Chicago Boys must have hated it!

... the application of organizational cybernetics to the problems of communication and self-regulation in the Chilean economy had some remarkable successes during its short life (Eden Medina’s book Cybernetic Revolutionaries provides the whole story of the Chilean experience with cybernetics and is perhaps the most accessible and enjoyable books on cybernetics available).

More on Beer's work:

Beer’s early work, prior to his experience in Chile and written as it was in the 1950s and ’60s, focuses on industrial production, and he shows that in organizations where different units (i.e. those concerned with producing separate components or those involved in different tasks like sales and manufacture) have the autonomy to work according to their own directives — based on their unique knowledge of what is required within their niches — a level of internal stability and effectiveness is reached which is difficult if not impossible in organizations where a strict, top-down hierarchy permeates every action of the workers at the bottom of the chain of command.

Hmm....

Coordination is achieved by communication between units working in different niches rather than through centralized control. Beer basically opposes Taylorist scientific management with a call for granting autonomy to the individual parts of an organization. To be sure, the autonomy is limited within the overall plan of the organization, which is decided at a senior management level (in the Chilean case this relied on a social democratic account of parliamentary authority), but the role of autonomy, and the potential of what Beer called the Viable Systems Model holds for genuinely democratic and anarchist organization, is nonetheless fascinating.

And now we have a model:

The Viable Systems Model is based on a tiered conception of an organization in which different tiers or levels are responsible for different functions ranging from ground-level operations to facilitating communication between different operations to decision-making about the strategic goals of the organization. Beer’s classic model, presented in his 1972 book The Brain of the Firm, assumes that while those at the bottom of the organization, the individual operational units, should be granted autonomy to work in their niches as they see fit. Higher level activities such as determining strategy should however be undertaken by a group of trained managers, separate from the workers on the shop floor.

Following the success and ultimate untimely demise of Project Cybersyn [proof in the pudding here, or not] in Chile, Beer pushed the democratic character of the Viable Systems Model further by arguing that there should be mechanisms in place through which those at the bottom of an organization are able to influence policy at the top. Indeed his recommendations are not dissimilar to those proposed by proponents of E-democracy today.

Here I can't help but think of the work lets has done with Interactive Voter Choice Systems.

As anarchists like [Colin] Ward and [John] McEwan highlighted, by insisting that the different levels in the organization be seen as functions into which different individuals can step at different times, rather than as fixed offices, those involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization can be the very same people involved in strategic decision-making and other levels of the organization.

In this way Beer’s politicization of organizational cybernetics can be taken in an even more radical direction and can form the basis for understanding the dynamics of effective and stable democratic organization.

Intellectually, I like the distinction between individual and function very much, and see how functions could be rotated (for example, through sortition) rather than be "fixed offices." Though I'd sure like to see a real life example.

The real life example given in the article -- and this is a little bit of a spoiler alert -- Occupy, and there's a handy diagram. I'll pull out this quote:

The working group structure of Occupy, combined with the space for strategic decision-making in the General Assemblies, made possible the kind of anarchist organization Colin Ward discussed in his 1966 essay [on anarchism and cybernetics]. Working groups engaged functionally in different niches and, as a cybernetic analysis makes clear, were able to do so with a level of autonomy that was limited not by a hierarchical command structure but by decisions made by the very same individuals at the General Assemblies.

I see how the above quote reinforces the author's thesis on "fixed offices" vs. functions... But can somebody who was more deeply involved in Occupy than I was help me out here? My recollection is that towards the end Occupy became almost completely dysfunction due to a mixture of: (1) external police state repression, (2) internal financial dysfunction, as in nobody knew how to account for the donations, (3) internal political dysfunction, in that people haven't ever really experienced having been "granted autonomy," and (4) caring for the homeless, which was both an internal and external concern, since the Occupiers and the homeless occupied the same public spaces. There's also the issue of whether the (5) General Assembly was capable of:

reflecting on the activities of the working groups and the organization as a whole as well as its overall strategy in relation to events in the outside world.

The experiences of Oakland and Manhattan diverged rapidly in that regard, is all I can say. (Though I was disappointed when the Occupy went to the "spokes" model; from this distance, it felt very much like a coup.)

Bottom line for me is that Occupy was not, as the author's representation would seem to suggest, a "viable organizational cybernetic system" (which isn't to say it wasn't glorious and instructive).

In other words -- as Chile suggests -- we have a bootstrapping problem. Anyhow, read the whole thing. As I said, there are diagrams!

UPDATE Big honkin' quote from Wikipedia on Cybersyn:

Project Cybersyn was a Chilean project from 1971–1973 (during the government of President Salvador Allende) aimed at constructing a distributed decision support system to aid in the management of the national economy. The project consisted of four modules: an economic simulator, custom software to check factory performance, an operations room, and a national network of telex machines that were linked to one mainframe computer.[2]

Project Cybersyn was based on Viable system model theory and a neural network approach to organizational design, and featured innovative technology for its time: it included a network of telex machines (Cybernet) in state-run enterprises that would transmit and receive information with the government in Santiago. Information from the field would be fed into statistical modeling software (Cyberstride) that would monitor production indicators (such as raw material supplies or high rates of worker absenteeism) in real time, and alert the workers in the first case, and in unnormal situations also the central government, if those parameters fell outside acceptable ranges. The information would also be input into economic simulation software (CHECO, for CHilean ECOnomic simulator) that the government could use to forecast the possible outcome of economic decisions. Finally, a sophisticated operations room (Opsroom) would provide a space where managers could see relevant economic data, formulate responses to emergencies, and transmit advice and directives to enterprises and factories in alarm situations by using the telex network.

The principal architect of the system was British operations research scientist Stafford Beer, and the system embodied his notions of organisational cybernetics in industrial management. One of its main objectives was to devolve decision-making power within industrial enterprises to their workforce in order to develop self-regulation of factories.

Amazing how much of our history has been stolen from us. This is all pre-Internet, too -- Telex systems, imagine!

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Comments

Submitted by lambert on

A genuinely democratic way of controlling the economy, strangled at birth by the Chicago Boys. Do we have any evidence that they knew of this work?

Autopoiesis, "a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself." That's a real 75-cent word...

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

that, after the coup, Pinochet brought in the monetarists led by Milton Friedman to help him re-structure Chile's economy along neoliberal lines; but I don't know the extent to which the "Chicago Boys" were involved prior to the coup with the interests in Chile who fomented it.

I seem to recall reading that during the coup, the project and related academic work was attacked by coup sympathizers and some buildings were burned. My recollection of the story is that Maturana and Varela found much of their research documentation destroyed, but I don't remember whether this happened to Stafford Beer or not.

jo6pac's picture
Submitted by jo6pac on

Maturana and Varela found much of their research documentation destroyed

.

In reading the pdf they destroyed their own work so it couldn't be used against the citizens.
Thanks for posting this and is something I never knew about and it seems like most if not all govt. would like to keep it a secret.

Yes, dead uncle milton friedman friend of the 1% and people wonder were 0 and friends get the not so wonderful ideas on austerity.

Some of this reminds me of this person.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming

Submitted by lambert on

What a horrible decision to have to make. (Though I don't think they need have worried because central planning is evil (except when oligarchs do it)).

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Yes, I didn't remember that the pdf makes clear that the project destroyed its records so that the Generals wouldn't be able to use it. However, I didn't see the pdf say that Maturana and Varela destroyed their research records and notes unconnected with the project and it is those I have the memory of getting destroyed in a fire at the time of the coup, by people other than the researchers themselves.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

Thanks for this. I saw mention of Beers over at NC and had clipped the quote for a deep dive later. I see you've already done that!

Re: Occupy. The issue was always (it seemed to me) about where resources went. The GAs had a hard time allocating resources, and most of the major fights (surprise) were about this topic. At the committee level, at least in Oakland, Finance had discretion to give out a daily cash reimbursement to any working group that registered and provided receipts. There was no budget allocation for this, as it all fell apart before it became regularized in that regard.

The issue of "how do we allocate resources" is a major one. That's especially true for any polity that adopts the MMT framework, since it decouples taxation from revenue. In that case it becomes clear that the questions are 1) what do we want to do as a collective 2) do we have the resources to do that as a society? Those are political question that often we do not have to address under the current neoliberal orthodoxy, since their answer is simply "government broke/can't afford." What's really being said, in many cases is "the class in power simply thinks XYZ group of people should drop dead and die, because an alternate resource allocation threatens the interests of ABC."

But what happens when we pull back the curtain and reveal that the disputes about affordability are actually disputes about power?