Anarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-Organising Systems

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* Article: . By John D. McEwan. Anarchy,



Anarchism and the cybernetics of self-organizing systems

Thomas Swann:

"By stressing the importance of local autonomy, cybernetics shows how systems can be effective and endure from one moment to the next. In social and political systems, it is not through dictatorial command and authoritarian constraint but through freedom and democracy that forms of organization can best meet their goals and remain stable. While self-organization in mechanical or electrical systems looks quite different from self-organization in anarchist groups and communities, Walter suggested that there is a crucial parallel between them: decision-making must happen at the most local level possible, and cohesion comes through the interplay between the parts of the system, which are themselves fundamentally autonomous.

To see precisely why this is the case, we need to turn to another key moment in this obscure history of anarchism and cybernetics.

In the issue immediately following the one that contained Walter’s article, Anarchy published a letter in response. In the letter, John D. McEwan wrote: “I’m interested in this question of the cybernetic approach to social organization, and have for some time considered that it’s particularly significant for anarchists. Especially some concerning self-organising systems, and criticisms of rigid hierarchic decision mechanisms.”7 Walter responded to say that “I wish I had had time to bring out the antipolitical overtones rather more,”8 but it was McEwan himself who developed this theme more fully.

McEwan is a bit of an elusive figure in this story. He sent his letter to Anarchy following the publication of Walter’s article, and then a few months later his own piece was published. We know from the short biography published alongside his article that he was born in 1938, graduated with a degree in mathematics from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and worked on diagnostic programming for an electronic computer. The letter he sent to the journal was addressed from Manchester, in the North of England, so presumably he lived and worked in that city, perhaps connected to the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Manchester, which pioneered some key advances in computing.

Beyond this, nothing is known of McEwan, or at least nothing I have been able to uncover, but the minimal volume of his contribution to anarchism – one letter and one longer essay later in 1963 – is more than made up for by its importance for understanding the connections between anarchism and cybernetics.

McEwan’s article was titled ‘Anarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-Organising Systems.’ In the years that followed, it was republished in two collections and has happily been made available online at Libcom. The article went into some depth on the connections between anarchism and cybernetics, focusing in particular on Kropotkin’s understanding of harmony in nature and how the autonomy of the parts of a system affords it the ability to maintain an equilibrium as its environment changes.

Social systems, like all systems, exist in a particular environment (everything that surrounds them, that has an impact on them, and that they in turn have an impact on). This environment changes over time, and to remain stable the system has to be able to continually adapt and modify itself in line with this change. The change in the environment is described as variety: the environment has a variety of possible states and it is the change from one state to another that any system existing within that environment must contend with.

One of the central tenets of cybernetics, known as Ashby’s Law after Ross Ashby, is that a system must be able to have the same level of variety as its environment in order to survive. When the environment changes from one state to another, the system must be able to change in turn; the system must be able to match the variety in the environment. The way systems achieve this variety and adaptability is through their parts having a high level of autonomy to act as they see fit in their own particular part or niche of the environment. This is the core characteristic that Walter had identified as being common to both cybernetics and anarchism. If systems are too rigid and don’t have this capacity for change and variety, they become overwhelmed and break down.

For anarchists, this kind of systemic rigidity and lack of variety has another implication: domination. The political and social systems anarchists try to resist, and ultimately destroy, display their lack of variety through authoritarian coercion. More or less explicit mechanisms of domination – from the overt brutality of the police and military to more subtle cultures of subservience and conformity – act to restrain the variety of the system. Everyone is forced to fit into a limited number of possible roles and behaviors. Freedom and autonomy to act and think differently are curtailed.

In his article in Anarchy, McEwan noted that Kropotkin had an understanding of nature and harmony that aligns strikingly with cybernetics. He described anarchist society, for example, as one that “looks for harmony in an ever-changing and fugitive equilibrium between a multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own course.”

McEwan challenged the dominant view of political and social organization, contrasting it with anarchist organization rooted in autonomy and complexity:

- “The basic premise of the governmentalist – namely, that any society must incorporate some mechanisms for overall control – is certainly true, if we use ‘control’ in the sense of ‘maintain a large number of critical variables within limits of toleration.’ […] The error of the governmentalist is to think that ‘incorporate some mechanism for control’ is always equivalent to ‘include a fixed isolatable control unit to which the rest, i.e. the majority, of the system is subservient.’ This may be an adequate interpretation in the case of a model railway system, but not for a human society. The alternative model is complex, and changing in its search for stability in the face of unpredictable disturbances.

McEwan’s discussion is particularly insightful, and it is one of the few places where cybernetic ideas of self-organization, variety, and autonomy are discussed in detail in relation to anarchism. Central to this is how the concept of control is understood. While cybernetics is focused on control – the subtitle of the very first book on cybernetics, by US cybernetician Norbert Weiner, was ‘Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine’ – it defines control not as something that is done to a system or a group of people but as something a system or group itself does. For anarchism, this means people self-organizing to govern themselves.

McEwan described the kind of high-variety system that cybernetics says is required for coping with a complex world, and it is something many anarchists would recognize: “Its characteristics are changing structure, modifying itself under continual feedback from the environment […]. Learning and decision-making are distributed throughout the system.”11 He quoted Kropotkin on anarchist organization, highlighting the startling similarity: “an ever-changing association bearing in itself the elements of its own duration, and taking on the forms which at any moment best correspond to the manifold endeavours of all.”12

Anarchist organization is still about control, but this control is enacted through the kind of democratic and participatory decision-making that has characterized anarchism since its inception and that is found in many non-state communities throughout history. Cybernetics reveals self-organization as an effective form of control for adaptive systems, but a form of control that, in social organization, involves us working collectively in agreement with those around us about how we can best run our lives, how we can be free and thrive in a complex and changing world.

McEwan’s article in Anarchy clearly made an impact, as cybernetics crops up again and again in the history of anarchism from the 1960s onwards, but the ideas contained within it were never taken forward and developed into a more comprehensive theory of anarchist organization. McEwan showed us some of the foundational principles behind cybernetics that can be applied just as fruitfully in anarchism, but what this means in practice for anarchist organizing was left unexplored.

But what if the story doesn’t have to stop here? In his essay, McEwan drew inspiration from one of the most influential figures in cybernetics. That figure was Stafford Beer. By taking a closer look at Beer’s life and work, and particularly through exploring his ideas about viable systems, we can inquire further into the connections between anarchism and cybernetics."


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