Allende’s socialist internet

Leigh Phillips tells the story of Cybersyn, Chile’s experiment in non-centralised economic planning which was cut short by the 1973 coup
September 2013

The Cybersyn Opsroom

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.

Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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Colin Penter 11 September 2013, 11.12

Great piece Leigh on an often forgotten but intriguing aspect of Allende’s Government. And great to see Stafford Beer get a mention. I stumbled across Stafford Beer’s work in the 1980’s and was very affected by the way he wrote about his involvement in Allende’s vision and the effect of Salvador Allende’s overthrow and death on him, and what appeared to be regret about the way this project’s possibility was cut short by the US inspired military coup. As an Australian I knew little about Stafford Beer’s work but was intrigued by his involvement with the Allende Government and what he wrote about the possibilities of planning and working outside of the capitalist hegemony. Beer provided us with an example of the way that politically engaged social science theory and practice could and should be deployed to serve radical political ends. I followed his work and his writings which had a great impact on my work as a social justice and social policy consultant and campaigner and activist. So I was excited to read this piece and to be reminded of the profound significance of Allende as well as Stafford Beer. And to mourn once again what might have been.

Mike Gatehouse 11 September 2013, 15.42

Compare and contrast! I was working in Chile in 1972-3 as a data analyst and computer programmer. At one point I was contacted by people in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Treasury (Ministerio de Hacienda) who wanted me to create a database to collect information on harvest projections and actual yields of key crops. I was sceptical, and asked what was wrong with their existing, paper-based systems. “The data is often wrong,” they said. Why? Because their local offices around the country had poor numerical skills. ‘Why not buy them simple calculators?’, I asked. These would tend to go missing (if not be actually pinched), they said, and sometimes figures were being deliberately mis-reported (for instance by areas wanting to qualify for additional funding or supplies, or by officials not wanting to appear incompetent). ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘but a database will not cure any of those problems’.

I found out later about Stafford Beer’s work. Although inspiring, I wonder to what extent it was implemented and whether it really played a significant role in the lorry owners’ lockout of October 1972 and in the run-up to the coup in 1973.

Matt Estrada den Hague 12 September 2013, 02.38

It might have been useful for me if this had been covered in elementary economics classes. It makes one think about alternatives to Keynes and Friedman doesn’t it, that can’t be a bad thing.

M. Voicu 7 October 2013, 08.44

Fascinating article.

Cornelius Castoriadis wrote about the idea of using computers to overcome the problems inherent in a planned economy. (e.g.: Never very convincingly.

And only a couple of years before the Chilean experiment, some of the activists and organic intellectuals of the Cultural Revolution were struggling with the problem of how the empowerment of workers at the local level could be reconciled with the shift in consciousness necessary to allow them to think in terms of ‘all of society’; how to harmonise permanent revolutionary spontaneity with the disciplines of bureaucratic planning in an industrial society?

I don’t actually think they came up with any meaningful solutions. Not surprising, really, as I don’t think there are any. At some point in the development of a post-capitalist project (real or hypothetical) the stark choice simply has to be made: prioritise bureaucratic rationality, with all the hierarchies and external discipline this inevitably entails (however humanely and effectively instituted!) or prioritise autonomy and collective self-management. Institutions can embody one or the other principle, but the two options aren’t really compatible, in practice or in their ultimate ends.

James O'Nions 10 October 2013, 09.33

Looks like there’s going to be a public meeting on the legacy of Cybersyn in London in December:
“Speaking at this event will be Nathan Coombs (Research Fellow at Edinburgh University) who will be speaking on the technological potentials of economic planning. Alongside him will be former Director of Project Cybersyn Raul Espejo, who will discuss his experiences with Cybersyn and the ‘Third Route’ to economic planning.”

Sam Gordon 11 October 2013, 00.19

Another of Stafford Beer’s pieces of work is the Viable Systems Model (VSM). This is one way of looking at organisations, which most people will not have been exposed to. The VSM has the potential to be useful to trade unions at work place or branch level, co-ops and small businesses and third sector groups. When I worked in community development it was a touch stone that I always kept within reach.
An engaging speaker certainly; but as a pretty high powered academic Stafford Beer’s written work, very often, is not for the faint hearted. But the VSM can be made accessible in a popular education context, which I’m sure is what Stafford would have wanted. It also has the advantage of being part of the greater “systems practice and thinking” tradition. This means that it often uses graphics, in the form of diagrams, pictures and drawings, and roughly sketched symbols. A lot of politicos do not like this as they generally opt for language, and only language, in communications. Not all of us are so inclined.
One reason system thinking has not have captured the imagination of the left is that it is said to lack any ideological content. Well, it’s up to the left to give it meaning. In fact, with so much of the non capitalist alternative being hopelessly fractured that could be an advantage. Given an organisational problem the VSM offers an opportunity the divergent left and fellow travellers could focus on when getting down to some practical work.

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