Digital Socialism and the Preservation of the Biosphere

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* Article: Democracy, ecology and Big Data. Can they be combined into a 21stcentury socialism? Kees van der Pijl.



“This paper discusses the urgent need to define a socialism of the 21st century based on the achievements of the Information Revolution. Compared to the labour socialism based on the Industrial Revolution and culminating the Soviet experience, a digital socialism would broaden the revolutionary subject of a transformation to what Guy Debord called ‘the class of consciousness’ today created by linking the large mass of the population to the Internet. Although owned effectively by capital, the pressure towards transparency and Open Data is changing the balance of forces now that capitalist society remains mired in crisis, no longer able to offer a meaningful social contract. Digital planning was attempted already in the USSR but it would have to be enlarged by democratic control and be anchored in an educational cultural change conscious of the need to preserve the biosphere. “

Contextual Citation

“ the development of the productive forces, the ‘limits of the possible’ in terms of social control of the forces of nature, entered a new, revolutionary stage from around the time of the original crisis of the late 1960s. This stage can be brought under the heading of the Information Revolution, the application of information theories such as cybernetics in combination with advances in computer technology and networks, culminating in the Internet. Already under capitalist conditions this has resulted in a knowledge economy, or noönomy, but the social, auto-regulatory possibilities of such an economy are becoming more and more in conflict with the private appropriation characteristic of capitalism.” (


The contradiction between the social brain and private capital

“the idea that we have to choose between planning and freedom is itself ideological; there is no doubt a real tension between mono-centric efficiency and humanistic polycentrism, but through democracy the two can be mutually accommodated.”

“Information, knowledge, is immediately social (one can, in principle, possess an item of information without somebody else being deprived of it), but under the capitalist regime, technological knowledge is subject to intellectual property rights (say, medicine patents). Simultaneously, the neoliberal ideology of individual success and reward continues to be imprinted on the reality of collective achievement and the community of fate of a humanity threatened by war and destruction of the biosphere. Yet today, the social is driving beyond the private. Big Data, the availability of every bit of information about everything/everybody in real time, is something that even the IT giants find difficult to control. Stored in several thousands of commercial servers, it is analysed through their own dedicated systems such as Google’s GFS, an expandable distributed file system that supports large-scale, data-intensive applications. Nevertheless, the IT giants do not have the Internet to themselves and for the exclusive use of their corporate clients: almost the entire population of the world is connected one way or another.” (

The Information Revolution as the Third Compression of Time and Space ?

Kees van der Pijl:

“The Information Revolution, understood as the process ultimately leading to the universal, real-time interconnectedness of the entire population of Planet Earth, can be understood as the third great space/time compression in human history, comparable to the Industrial Revolution and further back, the Neolithic Revolution. One common element of the three qualitative leaps in how human communities occupy space, and the ensuing revolutions in the development of the productive forces, was that for obvious reasons, the initial advantages arising from them bolstered the existing ruling classes first. However, the consolidation of a mode of production and a mode of foreign relations within the newly established ‘limits of the possible’ then also generated possibilities for subaltern forces. Initially these emerged on the outside, externally, as trade advantages and/or war-making capacities, but an inner tension was created as well, eventually revolutionising the geopolitical economy as a whole.

If we confine ourselves to the comparison between the Industrial and the Information Revolutions, we can identify the key differences between the two socialisms I distinguish: what I call labour socialism, and digital, or Big Data eco-socialism.

The Industrial Revolution had its epicentre in Britain, mobilising the resources of its empire, human and material alike. In the Atlantic West arising from this mutation, capitalism emerged as the new mode of production. It spread through the geopolitical economy by way of contender states resisting liberal, Anglophone supremacy, beginning with absolutist France. Labour socialism was the internal subaltern force arising in the course of the century following the Industrial Revolution, when capitalism provoked the development of a mass workers’ movement inspired by Marx and Engels and the First International they founded. Eventually, Soviet-style state socialism, which after the failure to ignite a world revolution in 1917, relapsed into the external contender posture facing the liberal capitalist heartland, replicated the Industrial Revolution, but ultimately failed to hold its own—although it came a long way.

Today we are in the midst of another world-historic transformation, the Information Revolution. Externally, it pits the declining West, led by the United States and its ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence group made up of Britain and the original Anglophone settler countries, against a loose, in fact involuntary contender bloc. Labelled the BRICS or otherwise, these are states such as China and Russia, in which capitalist restoration and/or neoliberal restructuring was followed by the discovery that they were not supposed to defend their sovereignty any longer and instead had to submit to Western global governance. The Five Eyes maintain a sophisticated surveillance system covering the entire planet, spying on allies and enemies alike. Systems not accessible to Five Eyes spying, such as those run by the Chinese IT giant Huawei, are attacked by all means available, from boycotts to hostage-taking, to keep this monopoly intact. Internally, the achievements of the Information Revolution are put to use for class oppression and heightened exploitation. Facial recognition coupled to round-the-clock observation of people in school, at work, and in the street give rise to totalitarian control; in every segment of the wealth scale, ‘impersonal systems of discipline and control produce certain knowledge of human behaviour independent of consent’.” (

Digital Planning in the Soviet Union

Kees van der Pijl:

“The USSR tested out many social techniques that will again become vital for humanity’s survival. Although Soviet at- tempts to develop digital planning were ultimately unsuccessful, they should be care- fully studied again.

Soviet (state) socialism crystallised in the failed world revolution of 1917-’24, and in hindsight represents the moment when the internal challenge arising from the Industrial Revolution, labour socialism, lapsed back again to an external one, a contender state resisting Western imperialism. The command economy that was instituted under the Five-Year Plans in the late 1920 relied on (initially extreme) coercion as a result of Russia’s backwardness, and ultimately allowed the USSR to defeat the Nazi invaders. In the 1960s, when socialist accumulation began to slow down after the initial breakneck transformation, a digital transformation was considered as a way out. In hindsight, some of its achievements were far ahead of their time and herald our current epoch, even though they ultimately ran into a conservative response blocking their revolutionary potential.

Computer design began at the Academy of Sciences in Kiev in the 1940s under Sergei A. Lebedev. Some prototypes were developed ahead of Western equivalents, some following closely behind. However, the ideological barriers to the adoption of particular theories necessary for the application of new electronic devices, such as cybernetics, were formidable. After Stalin’s death, this changed and Anatoliy I. Kitov, a colonel engineer in the armed forces of the USSR, published the first Soviet book dealing with computers, Electronic Digital Machines, which fired the imagination of many mathematicians and economists.

In his speech at the XXth Party Congress in 1956, in which he denounced Stalinism, Nikita Khrushchev also advocated steps to introduce factory automation. The development of computers in the Soviet Union was under the control of the military and after they had learned of the computerised air-defence system developed in the United States, they wanted to respond by a comparable system of their own. Kitov then proposed making the envisaged network available also for civilian uses since in peacetime, the computers would be idle; but since he by-passed the military hierarchy by addressing Khrushchev directly, he was dismissed and expelled from the party. Yet the digital planning idea had been launched and was given more attention, although a school advocating profitability as the criterion for success was also forming around Evgenyi Liberman.

At the Twenty-Second Party Congress of 1961, Khrushchev again declared it imperative to accelerate the application of digital technologies to the planned economy. By then the hopes and enthusiasm about the USSR overtaking the West were at their height and cybernetic economic management was a key component of the fervour. A report for the Council of Foreign Relations in the United States noted that Soviet planners saw cybernetics as the most effective instrument for ‘the rationalisation of human activity in a complex industrial society’. The communist press began popularising the idea of computers as the ‘machines of communism’, causing US observers to express their worry that ‘if any country were to achieve a completely integrated and controlled economy in which “cybernetic” principles were applied to achieve various goals, the Soviet Union would be ahead of the United States in reaching such a state’. The CIA, too, published a series of reports in which the agency expanded on this theme, warning in particular that the USSR might be on the way to building a ‘unified information net’ that in the eyes of some of president Kennedy’s advisers would, if successful, ‘bury the United States’ as Khrushchev had promised.

One of the Soviet scholars interested in the digital version of the command economy was Viktor M. Glushkov, the director of the Computing Centre of the Academy of Sciences of Soviet Ukraine. It says something about the forward-looking dynamism of Soviet society at the time that Glushkov not only conceived his idea of a Nation-wide Automated Economics Control System (in Russian, OGAS ), but also, notwithstanding Kitov’s problems with the authorities, felt free to hire him as his assistant.

Alexei Kosygin, then deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, encouraged Glushkov to elaborate his ideas about digitalising the planning system, but in 1964, when a comprehensive plan was finally submitted, it fell victim to the more cautious policy of the new leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, who jointly with Kosygin had sidelined Khrushchev and instead embarked on a strategy introducing greater enterprise autonomy along the lines of Liberman.

The digital planning idea was not entirely shelved, but both inter-service rivalry and the resistance of regional bosses to having their data made available to the centre in full, combined to cripple it beyond repair. Only when the Soviet Union acquired information about the ARPANET (a forerunner of the Internet) being developed in the United States, Glushkov, who had been told by Ukrainian party leader Petro Shelest to forget about it, was allowed to make a modest restart. If one thinks of the great strides the automation process was making in the final stages of the USSR (according to Bodrunov, from 1980 to ’85, the number of industrial robots in the Soviet Union grew to 40,000, several times more than employed in the US and 40 per cent of the world total), one can understand the tremendous missed chance in this respect.

Manuel Castells explains the lapse of the once (briefly) leading Soviet high-tech sectors to the pre-eminence of the military, who around 1965 decided that they could not risk being outplayed in the arms race and expose themselves to a US surprise attack. By imposing their play-safe strategy, the military trumped the interests of the indigenous Soviet computer sector and made the country dependent on US developments. By spying, smuggling, and reverse-engineering this ensured that the USSR would always have the same computer power as the adversary, albeit with a delay. Thus the visionary departures in the direction of digital planning were buried.” (