Cybernetic Self-Management

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On the approach of Castoriadis

Nick Dyer Witheford:

"Historically, the anti-statist tendency in Marxism has been largely carried in a very different ‘worker council’ tradition, that, against the powers of party and state has insisted on the role of workplace assemblies as the loci of decision-making, organization and power. In an essay antediluvian by digital standards, ‘Workers' Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society,’ written in 1957 but republished in 1972, immediately after the Soviet crushing of Hungary’s Workers Councils, Cornelius Castoriadis noted the frequent failure of this tradition to address the economic problems of a ‘totally self-managed society.’ The question, he wrote, had to be situated ‘firmly in the era of the computer, of the knowledge explosion, of wireless and television, of input-output matrices’, abandoning ‘socialist or anarchist utopias of earlier years’ because ‘the technological infrastructures … are so immeasurably different as to make comparisons rather meaningless’ (Castoriadis, 1972: np).

Like the planners of Red Plenty, Castoriadis imagines an economic plan determined with input-output tables and optimizing equations governing overall resource allocation (e.g. the balance between investment and consumption), but with implementation in the hands of local councils. His crucial point, however, is that there should be several plans available for collective selection. This would be the mission of ‘the plan factory’, a ‘highly mechanized and automated specific enterprise’, using ‘a computer’ whose ‘memory’ would ‘store the technical coefficients and the initial productive capacity of each sector’ (Castoriadis, 1972: np). This central workshop would be supported by others studying the regional implications of specific plans, technological innovations, and algorithmic improvements. The ‘plan factory’ would not determine what social targets should be adopted; merely generate options, assess consequences, and, after a plan has been democratically chosen, up-date and revise it as necessary. Castoriadis would agree with Raymond Williams’s (1983) later observation that there is nothing intrinsically authoritarian about planning, providing there is always more than one plan." (