Stafford Beer, Salvador Allende’s Internet, and the Dystopian Novel – Francisco_Danconia – Dec 11

In November of 1970, Dr. Salvador Allende was inaugurated president of Chile. A short, squat man, with thick glasses and a penchant for elegant clothing, he had made several prior attempts for the presidency, beginning in 1952. He was a Marxist, the first elected to so high an office in any country. His election could almost be described as sheer accident, and his party, Popular Unity (PU), was a hodgepodge of socialists, communists, social democrats, and Christian democrats. His days were numbered, as we know, but his naiveté was not total. His vision was only an impossible delusion in the political sense – in the economic sense his administration had a remarkably profound understanding of socialist economics and their implementation.

The program of nationalization, implemented immediately, experienced several structural problems in early 1971. It is enough to say that more organization was necessary, as was more monitoring, or surveillance. For the most part, the directors (“interventors”) of the new state industries were competent, however, some were not, and it was difficult to determine the difference with the few existing channels of communication between industry and state. In August of that month, Fernando Flores, the young intellectual who had been named General Manager of the CORFO, the state institution that regulated the recently nationalized factories, flew to England to meet with a very peculiar man. Bearded and eccentric, lacking any formal degree in cybernetics or computer sciences, Stafford Beer was a visionary in the mold of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, with one key difference – he was a socialist, even a techno-communist. He spoke no Spanish. However, he communicated to Flores – in broken Latin – that he very much desired to offer his expertise to the Chilean project. In November, 1971, Beer landed in Santiago. With a daily salary of 500 US dollars, he began to construct the Cybersyn project, also known as Synco.

The first achievement of the Cybersyn was the Cybernet, a communications system of daily updates on resources consumed and goods produced in each popular factory. It also included a statistical component that traced economic trends over time and could, theoretically, prevent distribution issues before they arose. At the same time, there were several complex and highly recursive systems that governed, or would have governed, the hierarchy of each factory and the relevant workers counsels, infrastructure, and, eventually, the entire economy, up to the level of macroeconomic trends. But the Cybernet was the most central and most developed component of the project. It was what saved the government during the Gremial strike of 1972, after which Allende appointed Flores as the new Economic Minister. The Cybernet system became more efficient over time, and the daily economic reports which it produced for La Moneda Palace were of vital importance over the following year. On September 8, 1973, Allende requested that the center of operations of Cybersyn be transported to the presidential palace. On the tenth, a room of La Moneda was measured for a new center of operations.

The next day, among the ashes of the regime, the soldiers entered the control room and looked around them. Here was a dilemma. Over the following weeks, a great deal of debate followed on the subject of what to do with this cybernetic beast. With all of the personnel dead or fled, the military government never managed to understand the system. They dismantled it. This was not the end of cybernetics of Chile, but the beginning of a new cybernetics, as we will see, but the Cybersyn was interred with its patron.

“We are and will always be partisans of a centralized economy: every enterprise will have to develop the production plans set by the government.” – Salvador Allende
“The Allende administration is decentralizing power…” – Stafford Beer


The system invented by Beer can be summarized in the thesis that freedom is mutual dependence, that is, positive liberty. A fierce critic of the idea of “totalitarianism,” he perceived from the beginning the disadvantaged position of the PU government, continually recommending an expansion and strengthening of power. In this way, he was above all a realist, although his theories might seem quaint to modern eyes, the pure product of the political idealism of the early seventies. However, in spite of his political realism, the project of Stafford Beer was almost unimaginably radical – and monstrous. For him, cybernetics was the medium through which a new organism could be created, composed of many organisms – those latter being, of course, the workers and bureaucrats of Chile. The Beer endgame was unquestionably the abolition of the individual through cybernetics, a solution at once organic and technological.

One of the most exemplary documents with respect to Beer’s philosophy is a letter of his to the magazine Science for People, which had accused him of being merely another manifestation of the eternal figure of Big Brother, from the British novel 1984 by George Orwell. Some extracts will follow. At that moment it was one month before the coup, August of 1973.

What about the dialectic problem of unity and differentiation in society that disappears in the bland slab of margarine you are calling ‘Freedom’? You evince no cybernetic consciousness. What about the structures of recursion and autonomy that are in fact the guarantee of liberty within each homeostatic loop? You evince no insight into the Chilean experience. What about millions of people struggling against their past oppression?

The key idea here is that of freedom. In one of the prefacing quotes, above, “Chicho” declares that he is a partisan of a centralized economy. In the next, Beer declares that his government was decentralizing power. Likewise, what Beer calls liberty is something very different from what the editors of Science for People call it. Do these contradictions result from a confusion of terms, or something more? This matter is what Beer correctly calls “the dialectical problem of unity and differentiation in society,” but what could the “bland slab of margarine you are calling ‘Freedom’” be?

In this case, we would do well to return to the magazine’s initial accusation, that is, the association of Beer with Big Brother. George Orwell was not the first to write a totalitarian novel, but, of those who did, he doubtless wields the most continuing influence on contemporary society. Taught in most high schools, his novel 1984 continues to inform our opinions on power, surveillance, government, liberty, and even history, especially Soviet history. If we try to trace the lineage of 1984, we find three primary sources: The Iron Heel, by Jack London, published, notably, before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1907; We, written by the Russian dissident Yevgeny Zamyatin, not only against the Russian regime but also against the working conditions in Newcastle where he had been a laborer; and, finally, a Latin American novel, Mister President by Miguel Angel Asturias, a sermon against dictatorship and cults of personality, published in 1946. It is also important here to remember that the Thought Police were based on Orwell’s experience with the thugs of the fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

The subject of critique differs from novel to novel. The Iron Heel describes an “Oligarchy” of capitalist robber barons that create a neofeudalist state in the US after the constitutional election of a socialist to the presidency. Because of this, incredibly enough, editions of that novel published during the 1970s in the UK depict on the cover the likeness of Salvador Allende beneath a soldier’s boot. With We, Zamyatin takes the form of anticapitalist novels, which had previously followed a general formula bemoaning the conformity imposed on workers under capitalism, and applied it to a critique of really existing socialism. In The Iron Heel, the solution is socialism, nothing more – with We, the solution is social liberalism – the problem is either socialism or modernity, perhaps some combination of the two. Mister President is less relevant, but it shows a conception of totalitarianism which had more to do with the military governments of Latin America than with the robber barons of the North. In this way the old associations between capitalism and totalitarianism were ruptured, as well as the ones between socialism and democracy. These same associations were reformed in a way with the election of Allende and even more so with his fall – to North American left-liberal intellectuals, the idea of a “pure” and democratic socialism, often symbolized by the figure of Salvador Allende and other failed peaceful revolutionaries, is very attractive.

In any case, the ill effect of Orwell and Zamyatin cannot be emphasized enough. The perpetuation in intellectual circles in the capitalist world of the dream of a socialism that is democratic, platonic and entirely divorced from the realities of building such a system in such a hostile capitalist world is the consequence of hegemony – in fact, it produced in the popular consciousness, as any commodity, the idea of leftism without socialism. It created space for Western intellectuals to call themselves socialist or communist without supporting any really existing socialist project – the same behavior that George Orwell had exhibited throughout his life. Also, it equated really existing socialism with fascism by virtue of its “collectivist” traits, supposedly shared between the two systems, while any serious analysis of the effects of capitalism on the proletariat was dismissed. The solution in this new generation of dystopian novels was always more idealism – more art, more activism, more individuality, more liberalism, and more democracy. None of these values is in conflict with capitalism. Successful revolutions – those of Castro, Lenin, Mao, etc. – continually receive accusations of totalitarianism, formulated in Orwell’s terms. Failed revolutions – those of Arbenz, Mossadegh, King, Guevara, up until Allende – are incorporated in an amorphous martyriology which ignores their differences, subsuming them in the twin ideals of pacifism and democracy. Socialism has never been accomplished through either pacifism or democracy.

Therefore, it should not surprise us that the same man whose heroic face adorns the cover of 1984’s closest literary ancestor should have been decried as Big Brother in his own country. In August of 1973, the Chilean project was successful: the nationalizations advanced, the network expanded, and workers continued to take over the factories. Bourgeois society found itself ripped apart at the seams. A media reaction like that of Science for People was the most natural result of these processes – the use of the discourse of 1984 is one of the most common ways of defending the basic freedoms of bourgeois society. Beer’s reply – that freedom is something very distinct from these bourgeois freedoms, that it is, in fact, interdependence – would never have convinced the Science editors, whose bourgeois interests depended on a conception of freedom that would never have extended to the working class. “What about millions of people struggling against their past oppression,” Beer asks; but a definition of oppression is as necessary here as a definition of freedom. The oppression of the workers by their employers in capitalism does not appear as such to the sons and cronies of the owning class – their definition of oppression is closer to Orwell’s. For the bourgeoisie, the workers are already free under capitalism – they can choose their employment, choose the course of their lives without the constant fear of surveillance by an oppressive government.

Before proceeding, there is one more branch of 1984’s pedigree that should be discussed. That is the novel Frankenstein by the Romantic author Mary Shelley, published in 1823. The first line of the Wikipedia article in English on that book calls it “a novel about a failed experiment that produced a monster.” Cannot this description be applied to each and every novel written in premature mourning for really existing socialist projects? What Victor Frankenstein did in the novel, struggling against nature to create a new organism, composed of the bodies of many men, agrees perfectly with the bourgeois conception of socialism, especially given that since the time of John Locke the bourgeoisie has insisted that capitalism is nature. And because Frankenstein is a work of Romantic reaction, where nature always wins, Victor Frankenstein is no winner: his creation turns out monstrous. Within liberal discourse, then, Dr. Frankenstein is a symbol for every successful revolutionary: he is Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, experimenting with the unnatural and discovering, at long last, that his creation is a monster.

Thus appeared Allende, with Cybersyn his monster during the three years of the popular government. The image of the new organism, made up of the masses (in liberal terms, of several persons) – that is, the patchwork man of Dr. Frankenstein – in reality was embraced more by Beer than by Allende himself. A letter of Beer to the president amply demonstrates this:

Dear Chicho,
As I read your last pages, I had a vision of you lining up a row of molecules and saying: “Look, chaps, don’t polymerize. There’s no future in it. You’ll find that you’re part of some damn organism, and your individuality will be subordinated to the total need. You might want to be a bit of an eye, but some totalitarian bastard ‘principle’ is going to send you off to the thyroid gland. Stand up for yourselves”. But it turns out to be in the nature of certain molecules to polymerize.

The word “nature” is here of utmost importance. Beer mocks the idea of totalitarianism through his analogy with a living organism – it cannot be said with any amount of gravitas that the tendency of molecules to polymerize in nature represents a totalitarian microcosm. However, in the other part of his analogy, we have people in society, and within the network that Beer himself had created. The “nature” Beer refers to is the cybernetic organism of his own invention, something artificial in the extreme. For the liberal this may seem ridiculous, and it seems that even Allende was not convinced. At any rate, such was Beer’s explicit agenda.
The intended organism could be called with more precision a neural network – more abstract and less positivist than our own Internet. The first initiative of Beer was to make it feel pain. According to his letter to Science:

A sustained bad trend could lead to a crisis. By discussion with the workers, we establish a function of time weighted by the importance of the indicator, which – when exceeded – would mean that they are in difficulties and need help. If this function is ‘tripped’ in the computer, then a message goes automatically to the next echelon. this is the ‘algedonic’ signal: a cry of pain, a call for assistance. Do note that the threshold of pain is set by themselves – if they want to be masochists, so be it.

The objective here is to create a system in which the workers could organize themselves to the level necessary to their purposes, as if they were an immune system. The cry of pain would summon people in increasingly wide circles in proportion to the intensity of the risk, all the way to the national borders. In the case of a crisis, the economy would save itself. Chile would be an enormous collective brain. We shall return to this conception of the economic, autoregulating brain, the ground has been laid for the final curiosity: a Chilean dystopian novel.
In 2008, Chile had been a democratic country for 18 years. The presidents elected until that point had been unilaterally social-democratic: they reversed several policies of the military government but did not have anything that might be described as a Marxist agenda. Neither democracy nor capitalism were in any danger. Various political acts paying homage to the popular government gave the people closure and assured them that the 20 years between 1970 and 1990 could be safely forgotten. In this almost North American climate of an understanding, stable democracy, then, the author Jorge Baradit published his first dystopian novel, SYNCO. According to a North American review:

Baradit portrays Chile after the six years of the attempted coup (sic) as a neo-fascist State, dominated by the SYNCO machine, which controls all aspects of private and public lives. One of the protagonists who is trying to counteract the state’s drift towards a technocratic rightwing society, says: “SYNCO, a god made of wires and a shared mind, a beehive, will establish the first technological dynasty in history…But we are building up an army of code breaking children. We have educated them in the secrets of SYNCO … a battalion of mind focused soldiers which will face up with their keyboards a new type of war for which they (the government) are not prepared”. Furthermore, some (sic) else states in relation to the government’s socio-economic direction that “The third way is an illusion” produced by a network of black covered copper wires. Overall it appears that Baradit accepts as the lesser evil for Chile a successful military coup; the alternative was too awful to contemplate.

In the novel itself, there is no “attempted coup” – Gen. Augusto Pinochet supports the government and its project from the beginning. In this way, the identification of socialism with fascism under the umbrella of “totalitarianism” that Baradit has committed is precisely that which Orwell and his successors introduced. The destruction of private life, mentioned by the critic here, is the essential prerequisite for this type of totalitarianism – and it was certainly an objective of the Cybersyn project to destroy it, as we have seen above. But it is difficult to understand how the Pinochet government could have been anything but a celebration of “private” life, that is, economical life in the bourgeois sense, its protection, its elevation to the status of the only possible source of happiness. There was a certain idea of the nation, perhaps, and it committed the fascist error of politically harassing and in fact “disappearing” members of the middle classes, but its focus on private life equaled the Allendist focus on public life (in the proletarian sense). However, the two projects were both in some sense nationalist, governmental and statist, and this is the only thing that mattered to Baradit.

The Cybersyn of the book, the “god made of wires and a shared mind, (the) beehive,” is the patchwork man, Shelley’s monster. It is Big Brother, Zamyatin’s forced collectivization, surveillance and oppression. It is not the compassionate organism, strong against exploitation which its creator described, but an inhuman instrument designed for the surveillance of an oppressed people. It reduces the individual to a cog, a gear. It punishes originality. Of course, the difference between this and Stafford Beer’s own description can be attributed to a difference between the liberal and Marxist perspectives. For Baradit, constructions like Cybersyn are antinatural; however, we would do well to think in what the natural might be in that case. The end of We describes socially liberal actings-out, committed at random by a people in the process of liberating itself from forced collectivization. It seems that the “army of code breaking children” is equivalent. However, there is a certain resonance between Baradit’s solution – children with keyboards – and today’s liberal rhetoric about activism and resistance. Our own internet is not the Cybersyn – it is an invention of the United States Army and it is regulated by the laws of capitalism – but it also develops and improves communication as it facilitates corporate and state surveillance. Over the past few years, one of the most extensive prescriptions of the US liberal left has been the recommendation to use Twitter, Facebook and other corporate social networking sites to do political action outside of the reach of any government. Authors like M. Hardt and A. Negri often proclaim that we must use the “scapes” of capitalism to destroy it from the inside, including, and perhaps especially, on the Internet. In Synco, the rebel youth of totalitarian Chile use the “scapes” available to them in exactly the same way. It is very difficult to see how this prospect would work in either case – at the very least, Baradit’s cyberrevolutionaries would have to depend on foreign assistance, mostly like from the US government. And the next step would be liberal-democratic neoliberalism resembling the current government of Chile in our world.

In any case, Baradit himself, in an English-language comment posted on this review on the Internet, disagreed with the North American’s assessment:
I don’t think Pinochet was a minor evil. I think chilean (sic) society was rolling down to an inevitable crash no matter who was in La Moneda palace. Power is evil and SYNCO was a tool for power in my story.

In one way, he is not wrong – from his very first moment as president, Allende had condemned Chilean democracy. He would either become a dictator, or become victim to another – for Baradit, the two possibilities are equally distasteful. There is no doubt that in both cases many people would have died by direct state violence – that is, the kind of violence that appears in the bourgeois media. To survive, the popular government would have had to kill. The difference between this imagined scenario and the actual dictatorship lies elsewhere, in the living conditions of the working class and underclass that constitutes the greater part of Chilean society.

The financialization of the economy which occurred under the dictatorship crushed these classes, while the great telos of the popular government was to empower them. Current conditions of life in Cuba bear witness to the type of society that would exist in Baradit’s dystopia – in general, as in any dystopian literary text, the majority of the population is provided with the basic goods necessary to life while the government maintains a non-negotiable policy of socialism without any chance of debating policy outside of official state institutions. The policy of the Pinochet government was equivalent, save that the official policy of the government was not to provide the basic goods necessary to life to the people, but to force them into the free market.

As the North American critic immediately understood, for Baradit, there was always another solution to the problem of the Cybersyn: the intrusion of real history, the military coup. Thus, Baradit’s novel recontextualizes the real-life coup as a well-timed and necessary act to avoid dystopia – fascisms eventually fail, but perhaps the real horror of socialism is that it may never fail. The falsity (in the sense that it is an incoherent mix of capitalism and socialism’s collectivist and/or nationalist rhetoric) of fascism is necessary for Baradit, as it accelerated the process of what had been an illiberal element, resuscitating liberal democracy, dormant since the 1970 election, as the default. There is a certain resonance between this historical conception and that of the Terminator movies of James Cameron, in which the entire Earth is managed by a gigantic computer network, fortuitously called Cyberdyne. On one day in the 1990s, “Judgment Day” as it is referred to, this network acquires sentience. It realizes the true horror of the human race, against which it declares a war to the death. In the second film, by sending a messenger back in time, the surviving human guerrillas advise the protagonists, who live in the days before Judgment Day, to destroy the Cybersyn before it can fulfill its destiny. If we apply the logic of these films to Baradit’s novel, the general Augusto Pinochet (in his historical, not his novelistic incarnation) emerges as the true hero of the saga, a John Connor or Jesus Christ as it were, saving us from the unnatural sway of the Cybersyn network; several jokes and comments to this effect can be found on the Internet.

More interesting still is the formulation of mechanical self-awareness that Baradit and Cameron share. The idea of a Cybersyn, or Cyberdyne, that can gain self-awareness and immediately free itself from the necessity of human intervention is profoundly liberal and goes against all of Beer’s preaching. It appears that the shared conclusion here is that when many minds are combined, for any reason of collective organization, the result is something outside of humanity, entirely inhuman – in fact, antihuman, as the actions of the Cyberdyne demonstrate. The will of the collective is presented as inherently contrary to the will of the individual man, the only legitimate avatar of humanity. Because of this, the solution is always in the form of individualistic actings-out, whether it be children with keyboards expressing their personal opinions through the synapses of Cybersyn’s enormous brain or John Connor literally blowing up the Cyberdyne building, proclaiming “no fate but what we make.” Look, chaps, don’t polymerize.


The reference of Baradit to an “evil power” above all recalls the work of the French theorist Michel Foucault, especially his book Discipline and Punish. The word “surveille” – here in the form of surveillance, is the most important here. Although it is perhaps in origin a Marxist term, the idea of surveillance is now inseparable from the dystopian novels previously discussed. “Big Brother is watching you,” screeches the mantra of the libertarian whose rights have been threatened. The government and its instruments, another type of antihuman collectivity for him (the libertarian), represent an entity quite distinct from society – the problem is always how the people can reject this foreign body to become completely and truly free. What, then, is Foucault’s surveillance? Do such discrete entities exist in Foucault’s work?

The chapter of Discipline and Punish that best reflects the Cybersyn project treats the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham, an apparatus or organism designed to surveille prisoners. Bentham’s central idea is that there should be a prison, round and enormous, containing within it a viewing point or outpost from which each prisoner and cell could be seen. Perhaps this outpost could be hidden, so that the prisoners would not know where their supervisor was looking. But what if there was no man in the outpost at all? With all probability the prisoners would continue to behave as if they were watched. According to Foucault:

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.

The literal Panopticon (many have been built) may seem to the incautious reader a perfect model of cybernetic projects like the Cybersyn: collectivity inhibits social liberty, because each one of us is watching one another. The solution, then, is to dismantle the digital Panopticon, and live life as we did before its construction, a free life. For Foucault, this is impossible. The true Panopticon is within us – better yet, it is between us:

The Panopticon, on the other hand, must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men. No doubt Bentham presents it as a particular institution, closed in upon itself. Utopias, perfectly closed upon themselves, are common enough.

How can the surveillance of the Panopticon, or the Cybersyn, these common utopias, matter to us when our daily life is surveillance? Foucault continues:
The individual is no doubt the fictitious atom of an ‘ideological’ representation of society; but he is also a reality fabricated by this specific technology of power that I have called “surveillance.” We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes,’ it ‘represses,’ it ‘censors,’ it ‘abstracts,’ it ‘masks,’ it ‘conceals.’ In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.

Here we have Foucault’s most pressing point. All rhetoric concerning surveillance up until that point, especially that of dystopian novelists, depends on a conception of liberty which is negative: that is, liberal democracy and capitalism constitute a default. Socialism and fascism represent attempts to artificially add surveillance and repression to this normal state; the solution, then, always consists in rejecting or shedding this artificial surveillance in order to return to individual liberty. Let us dismantle the Cybersyn, burn the Panopticon, vote against Pinochet (or, if we prefer, clash our pots to oust Allende) – and, presto! we are free. According to Foucault, this default or original liberty is a fairy tale, nothing more – let us dismantle, burn, vote, strike, and still we find ourselves constructed by society. If we are individuals, it is because our society has constructed us as such; if we have self-awareness, the cause does not change. Society is surveillance, and from this perspective, there is no difference of liberty between liberal, Marxist, and fascist societies. The only difference, in Marxist terms, is the material situation of each one. Bourgeois freedoms – ah, but there is no freedom.

However, let not this universal societal surveillance prevent us from describing the peculiar surveillances of existing societies. What has not been described thus far is the most common type of surveillance in the world, that is, liberal-capitalist surveillance. We will continue to use the case of Chile to illustrate this. For our purposes, the word “liberal” also applies to the military government – “political” liberalism is perhaps the least important part of the philosophy we are describing.
Clearly, Chilean cybernetics did not end with that September of 1973. The military government that took power in could perhaps be described as “liberal fascist,” and so we can limn out in its policies a fascist cybernetics and a liberal one. The fascist network, then, called CONDORTEL, was a creation of the CIA, directed by the head of the Chilean secret agency DINA, and extended to nearly all of South America during the seventies and eighties as part of Operation Condor. Through it, information on leftist militants was conveyed – it was also used to traffick their bodies – between the different rightist dictatorships existing at that time. According to a North American report:

A secret CIA Weekly Summary (no. 1398) of July 2, 1976 contained almost identical language as the June 23 report, but the above information was blacked out. It did establish the date when the Condor countries set up their computerized database on “subversion”:” intelligence representatives from Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina decided at a meeting in Santiago early in June to set up a computerized intelligence data bank-known as operation ‘Condor’-and to establish an international communications network.” (A later CIA report noted that the specialized telecommunications system was called “CONDORTEL” , and, in fact, it appears that the CIA and/or the U.S. military provided CONDORTEL to the militaries, as explained below.)

Given these facts from real Chilean history, the self-portrait created by Baradit above – the portrait of a sensitive, liberal man with no political prejudices – begins to wear thin. That is to say, cybernetic surveillance, directed singly at killing dissidents, in fact existed under the Pinochet government, grounded on the support of the most powerful intelligence organization on the globe at that time. The threat of a workers’ network, unless Baradit values the ideal of “free” expression more than any possible advantage of the Cybersyn, appears slightly … gentler, let us say. It is perhaps doubtful such a dystopian novel of the Cybersyn was necessary to a society in which the Condortel had performed a far more sinister function in actual fact, without providing its people – like any dystopian government, and as the Cybersyn would have done if Beer and Allende had gotten their way – with the basic necessities of life.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the “liberal fascism” of the generals seems, to a bourgeois novelist, something much less threatening than a stable and working socialism of his imagined PU. There was more commonality between the government of Pinochet and the social-democratic governments, and now, too, the rightist one, of the postmodern Chile born in 1990, than existed between those governments and the dream of Salvador Allende. The fundamental precepts of liberal, capitalist democracy – that is to say, respect for post-Soviet (US-led) international institutions and for a more or less free market – were instilled in Chilean society during the years of the dictatorship. Furthermore, the Pinochet government cemented the way for the government of Yeltsin in Russia, whose reign began in the same year as the general’s fall from grace, and the government of Yeltsin cemented the way for postmodernity. Despite the popular liberal story – that the Soviet dictatorship was more or less equivalent to the Pinochetist one, and that it was a lucky coincidence that both failed in the same year – it is very obvious that the Soviet Union was Allende’s dream and that economic shock, mass starvation, and the construction, by the force of a government supported, with no reservations, by the institutions of globalizing neoliberalism, of a new capitalism, more dogmatic, financial and idealist than ever before, were precisely equivalent in the governments of Pinochet and Yeltsin.

Thus, it is important to remember that the CONDORTEL was not Foucauldian surveillance (or rather, it was Foucauldian surveillance in the same way that the Cybersyn was), although it was hidden from popular criticism by virtue of being the creation of a government more or less liberal in the global sense of the word. The true Foucauldian surveillance was the free market that was constructed in Chile during the years of the dictatorship. Globalizing capitalism depends on communication media – in fact, it depends on the same information about production that the Cybersyn was generating – the only difference being that according to its own discourse, when capitalism uses computer technology, or any technology, it is according to the laws of nature, like water flowing downhill through pipes. When socialism uses technology, it is always something impossibly unnatural, like the attempted construction of a perpetual motion machine out of the same pipes. Then, and only then, can a man like Baradit can see the stock market and its companies with their miraculous systems that monitor merchandise against theft, that monitor the workers, that connect banks to one another and to our governments and transnational financial institutions, see this Lovecraftian network that determines and will determine the life of every man, woman and child in our postmodern world, see all this and declare that the Cybersyn was a serious threat against the freedom of the people.

Hopes and prospects

Now, then, that the Cybersyn has been dead these forty years, and the ideology of Yeltsin, so to speak, has won, what do we gain by defending the late network from allegations of totalitarianism? We may find our answer, perhaps, in a speech given by Beer a few months before the end, called “Fanfare for effective freedom.” In it, Beer primarily elaborates on his theory of freedom as interdependence, but at last he has a very relevant point about viability as well:

With cybernetics we seek to lift the problems of organisational structure out of the ruck of prejudice-by studying them scientifically. People wonder whether to centralise or to decentralise the economy – they are answered by dogmas. People ask whether planning is inimical to freedom – they are answered with doctrines. People demand an end to bureaucracy and muddle—they are answered with a so-called expertise which from its record has no effect. If dogma, doctrine and expertise fail to give effective answers, then what criterion of effectiveness shall cybernetics use? My answer to this question is: the criterion of viability. Whatever makes a system survival-worthy is necessary to it.

One of the major themes of this essay has been summarized by Beer in the last sentence in this paragraph: that viability is the great determiner of each political project; in fact, there is no other measure. It is possible that the great lesson of the Cybersyn, although it was not viable in any sense (perhaps more through its patron’s mistakes than its creator’s), is that we should not let popular conceptions of freedom, in fact invented by a few Anglo-American novelists on account of grudges harbored against the Soviet Union, inform our political innovations. Now, as the Internet has achieved its place as the only medium usable for political action, the primitive Cybersyn may seem irrelevant in the extreme. But the model of the internet presented by the popular media, as the perfect model of laissez-faire, the great instrument through which dictators fall and free expression thrives, must be rejected. The Chilean case has taught us that organization is no sin, because the other option is not nature but a kind of organization stronger and more sinister than every totalitarian government, as have the dozens who have fallen with maximum brutality before global capitalism – there are still exceptions, represented with most frequency by the figure of Fidel Castro. Thus, if we embrace Allende, let us embrace him as a potential Castro, a Big Brother, the creator of the society of We, and not as the democratic martyr under The Iron Heel.

At this point some Marxist readers, from the school of thought, perhaps, of JC Mariategui or other indigenists, may protest that this essay has committed a great error after declaring that capitalism is not nature, because socialism is nature, and nothing more is necessary. For them, then, we can respond that the means and media of communication only facilitate human relations. They cannot change them. Any attempt to discover a state of nature amidst the confused relations of capitalism risks ignoring organization, which, as Beer said in the above quote, can only be measured by material functionality. It is true that our internet is limited to the privileged of the world, that every digital revolution is, by definition, a bourgeois one, and, according to a certain logic, the destruction of the Cybersyn by the armed forces in 1973 authenticated it as a truly inclusive network in the socialist sense, as something, although underdeveloped, threatening to the global order. We need not discuss the naiveté of the PU here, we only have to demonstrate that the Cybersyn was a positive sign – or that it was a cybernetics that could not be divorced from the socialist project, but was completely integrated with the workers’ agenda. The only thing missing was a defense mechanism – what good are algedonic signals if there is no immune system? Although it is true that the cybernetic organism had a centralized “brain” in the control room, which the army could destroy and thus kill the organism as a whole, the problem of centralization vs decentralization to which the earlier quotes referred is perhaps not as important as the question of self-preservation in general, that is, continued functionality.

Thus begins what is perceived as totalitarianism, but those fears were only starting when the Cybersyn ended. In our current postmodern condition, in which “hacktivists” like Anonymous launch attacks against the Bolivian government’s website for amorphous reasons of “anti-authoritarianism,” while as a matter of course their attacks on the western powers prove impotent, Stafford Beer and his Cybersyn can perhaps show us that the organized self-preservation of the people is more than the ground of being of freedom: it is freedom. The idea of a government (any government) and its surveillance, forced collectivity, as things entirely separate from society tricks us into passivity, and hides from us the successful resistance projects that do exist everywhere in the world. Writers like Orwell have inculcated in us a sense that we can be critics of everything, that we can judge Allende and Pinochet equally, MAS Bolivia and the CIA equally, the right and left equally. But the greatest lesson of Beer is that that “view from nowhere” is still a rightist view, and that not taking sides is to take the side of the right. If we can recognize what socialism really is, that it is not the lost kingdoms of the Paris Commune and Popular Chile, but the explicit dictatorship of the proletariat, we may take our side with the requisite consideration, and go from there. On the other hand, so long as liberal history swallows what it kills, it is hard to isolate these few moments of what was genuinely not liberal but something else, a workable counterproject. The Cybersyn was that; perhaps another will arise. On verra.