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 11, 2013
6 min read


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

The Cybersyn OpsroomThe 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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

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

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant


2,156