The Cybersyn Opsroom
The story of Salvador Allende, president of the first ever democratically elected Marxist administration, who died when General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the young administration in a US-backed coup on 11 September, 1973, is well known amongst progressives. But the human rights horrors and tales of desaparecidos have eclipsed – quite understandably – the pioneering cybernetic planning work of the Chilean leader, his ministers and a British left-wing operations research scientist and management consultant named Stafford Beer. It was an ambitious, economy-wide experiment that has since been described as the ‘socialist internet’, an effort decades ahead of its time.
In 1970, the Allende government found itself the coordinator of a messy jumble of factories, mines and other workplaces that had long been state-run, others that were freshly nationalised, some under worker occupation and others still under the control of their managers or owners. An efficient strategy of coordination was required. The 29-year-old head of the Chilean Production Development Corporation and later finance minister Fernando Flores – responsible for the management and coordination between nationalised companies and the state, and his advisor, Raul Espejo, had been impressed with Beer’s prolific writings on management cybernetics, and, like Allende, wanted to construct a socialist economy that was not centralised as the variations on the Soviet theme had been.
Allende, a doctor by training, was attracted to the idea of rationally directing industry, and upon Flores’ recommendation, Beer was hired to advise the government, and the scheme he plunged himself into was called Project Cybersyn, a ‘nervous system’ for the economy in which workers, community members and the government were to be connected together transmitting the resources they had on offer, their desires and needs via an interactive national communications network. The whole idea would seem, frankly, eccentrically ambitious, even potty, if today the internet were not such a quotidian experience.
Although never completed, by the time of the coup, the advanced prototype of the system, which had been built in four months, involved a series of 500 telex machines distributed to firms connected to two government-operated mainframe computers and stretched the length of the narrow country and covered roughly between a quarter and half of the nationalised economy. Factory output, raw material shipments and transport, high levels of absenteeism and other core economic data pinged about the country and to the capital, Santiago – a daily exchange of information between workers and their government, easily beating the six months on average for economic data to be processed in this way in most advanced countries.
Paul Cockshott, a University of Glasgow computer scientist who has written about the possibility of post-capitalist planning aided by computing, is a big admirer of Cybersyn as a practical example of the general type of regulation mechanism he advocates: ‘The big advance with Stafford Beer’s experiments with Cybersyn was that it was designed to be a real-time system rather than a system which, as the Soviets had tried, was essentially a batch system in which you made decisions every five years.’
Staff tallied the data and seven government surveyors (seven being the largest number of people who can comfortably participate in a discussion) viewed real-time economic processes for immediate decisions from a space-age, Star-Trek-like operations room, complete with Tulip swivel chairs with built-in buttons, but the aim was to maintain decentralised worker and lower-management autonomy rather than to impose a top-down system of control. The intention was to provide an Opsroom overseeing each industry and within each plant. At the factory level, it was planned that workers’ committees would run the Opsroom. Figures were avoided in favour of graphics displays under the belief that people should be able to engage in economic self-government without formal mathematical or financial training. Vast, economy-wide co-ordination is not the same as centralisation.
When the government faced a CIA-backed strike from conservative small businessmen and a boycott by private lorry companies in 1972, food and fuel supplies ran dangerously low. The government faced its gravest existential threat ahead of the coup. It was then that Cybersyn came into its own, when Allende’s government realised that the experimental system could be used to circumvent the opposition’s efforts. The network allowed its operators to secure immediate information on where scarcities were at their most extreme and where drivers not participating in the boycott were located and to mobilise or redirect its own transport assets in order to keep goods moving and take the edge of the worst of the shortages. As a result, the truck-owners’ boycott was defeated.
After that other September 11 almost forty years ago, when the bombs fell on La Moneda, the presidential palace where Allende took his own life rather than surrender to Pinochet’s fascists, the fires that destroyed democracy in Chile also took the world’s first non-Stalinist experiment in economy-wide planning with them, replaced by another economic experiment of an altogether opposite character: the monetarist structural adjustment of Milton Friedman, infamously replicated by Margaret Thatcher and her dozens of imitators.
Today, 40 years later, systemic change is on the table again. After decades of defeats, there is a burgeoning – if still fragile – sense that far-reaching transformation going beyond a tinkering with the system might be necessary and, crucially, achievable.
So you would think that the period would be ripe for discussion of a post-capitalist economics, for a blossoming of competing concrete proposals of what a thoroughly different economic system might look like. Yet very few have engaged in the hard thinking about what could happen ‘the morning after’ a presumed victory. We are undergoing the biggest economic disaster since the 1930s, an unprecedented global slump that may turn out to be worse than the Great Depression, and no one wants to theorise about the day after tomorrow, fearful that we may be ‘building castles in the air’.
This is the utility of Allende’s Cybersyn for us in 2013. Cybersyn is not some quirky historical curiosity. Nor was it a utopian dream. Rather, Allende’s experiment was a real-world example of post-capitalist planning that needs to be scrutinised in great depth and then appraised to see what bits of it, if any, can be redeployed were ordinary people once again to win power.
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself