Stafford Beer’s Organizational Cybernetics

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Thomas Swann:

"The experience of Chilean socialism under Allende will undoubtedly have limited appeal to anarchists. However sincere Allende and those around him were about improving welfare and democratising the economy, Chile remained a centralized state with a representative system of democracy. It was a far more open and free society than the one that replaced it in 1973, but it was still several steps removed from the kind of decentralized self-organization anarchists want to build.

Project Cybersyn, however, set in motion a radicalization of sorts in cybernetics, and in particular in the work of one influential cybernetician: Stafford Beer. Beer was the inspiration for McEwan’s discussion of anarchism and cybernetics; he had seen Beer lecture at the Salford College of Advanced Technology in the UK. After Allende’s election, Beer, at the time a management consultant, was invited to advise attempts at implementing workplace democracy and worker control of industry. Beer’s involvement quickly went beyond simply advising, and Project Cybersyn was the result.

For Beer, the experience was life-changing (he recounted the experience at length in the second edition of his book Brain of the Firm, published in 1981). He went to Chile a much sought-after consultant, accustomed to a luxurious life of Rolls Royce cars and first-class international travel. Shortly after Allende’s death and the demise of socialism in Chile, Beer turned his back on much of that lifestyle. He moved to a small cottage in Wales without running water, and while he continued to do work aimed at improving efficiency in business management, a decidedly political edge entered his thought.

In 1973, the blood of the coup against Allende still wet, Beer gave a series of lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The series was titled ‘Designing Freedom’ (later published as a book). In it, Beer touched on a wide array of topics, lamenting authoritarianism and presaging the information-hungry surveillance and manipulation of social media. The overarching theme of the lectures was the need for decentralization and autonomy in organization, to facilitate the responsiveness to change McEwan so forcefully articulated in relation to anarchism. Towards the end of the penultimate lecture, Beer stated:

“According to the analysis of centralization and decentralization with which we began, it is clear that there should be a major devolution of power. I think it should be open to a community to organize its social services (education, health, welfare) exactly as it pleases, and to accept or reject the initiatives of local innovators. […] I think that workers should in general be free to organize their own work, and that students (up to the age of death) should be free to organize their own studies.”13

The converse of this kind of decentralized democracy, for Beer, was a system that enshrines decision-making in rigid, top-down structures of command and coercion. “Thus is freedom lost,” he said in the final lecture, “not by accident, but as the output of a system designed to curb liberty. My message is that we must redesign that system, to produce freedom as an output.”14 The ‘designing freedom’ of the title was intended convey the need to create social practices and institutions in which individuals and groups can realize their liberty.

Beer was no anarchist, but there is a convergence of this line of thought with how many anarchists, such as Kropotkin, viewed individual freedom, as the outcome of anarchist social organization rather than pre-existing it. Anarchist organization can be seen, it follows, as a system designed to produce freedom. In the Designing Freedom lectures, Beer gave a general introduction to his brand of organizational cybernetics. His main body of work was focused on something he called ‘the Viable System Model.’ It is in this account of effective, decentralized organization that anarchist cybernetics can be advanced.

Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM) is notoriously difficult to summarize, but I’m going to try (for a more detailed description see here). The VSM in an attempt at showing how any system can cope with variety and change while maintaining both the autonomy of its parts and its coherence as an overall system. It is a way of expanding how we think about the basic cybernetic principles of effective self-organization – principles already covered in this article in the discussion of McEwan’s Anarchy essay – and it was introduced by Beer specifically with social organization in mind.

The VSM picks out the five different functions that any effective, self-organized social system will embody. First, there are the primary activities of the organization. These are carried out in a largely autonomous fashion. These activities and the autonomous units that carry them out are the purpose of the organization. All other functions exist to facilitate these parts in getting on with things however they want (up to a point; I’ll return to this shortly). The second function of the organization is the communication between these autonomous parts. In order that the activity of one part doesn’t undermine the activity of another, they have to be able to communicate and share information. Thus is a minimal level of coordination ensured.

Beyond this are the functions that bring these activities together so that they operate as an organization and not a loose collection of activities with no common direction. The third function, then, is concerned with the planning of the primary activities of the organization so that they cohere towards a shared goal. The fourth looks outside the organization and to the future, to assess changes in the wider environment the organization sits in and to make sure those involved in the primary activities can adjust accordingly. The fifth and final function is focused on the identity or ethos of the organization, which shapes all of the activities the organization undertakes.

Cyberneticians Raul Espejo (who worked with Beer in Chile) and Antonia Gill call these functions: Implementation – the basic activities of the organization; Co-ordination – communication between basic activities; Control – the planning that gives the basic activities a common goal; Intelligence – integrating a wider perspective into planning; and Policy – the identity of the organization that provides its values and that guide all other activities. Anarchists may bristle at the word ‘control’ here, but as I mentioned in the discussion of McEwan’s Anarchy article, the control at work here is not hierarchical command. It is, in the words of cybernetician Allenna Leonard, “the control of a skier going down a hill.”15 It has more to do with finding collective balance than it does compliance with a higher authority, and could be thought of as the kind of control a group of musicians exert when they improvise.

Many of the organizations where the VSM has been applied have been corporations and governments, and these functions are often linked to specific structural positions in the corporate or political hierarchy. In his book Diagnosing the System for Organizations (published in 1985), Beer wrote that the identification of certain functions with positions in a hierarchy was “simply the result of a general acquiescence in the hierarchical concept.”16 It suits those in power, and those who hope to be in power one day, to section off planning functions as the preserve of managers and bureaucrats, to specify primary activities as lower in the chain of command and to make them the responsibility of people they can rule over.

This was not how Beer saw things. If we take the VSM back to basics, it becomes clear that these functions do not need to be arranged hierarchically. They can just as well be realized in a radically democratic form of organization, in the kind of anarchist organization that is committed to the elimination of hierarchies of command and domination.

In the mid-1980s, Jon Walker, a worker at the Suma wholefoods cooperative in the UK, wrote to Beer, asking him two questions: could the VSM be used in cooperative forms of governance?; does the VSM require authority and obedience? Beer replied yes to the first question, no to the second. In The VSM Guide, Walker wrote: “effective organisational structure can be based upon individual freedom, […] authoritarian management is not the only alternative.”17

Through democratic deliberation and collective decision making, each of the functions of the VSM can be replicated without turning to hierarchical governance structures. People and groups involved in the basic activities of an organization can communicate in decentralized and networked ways, formally or informally, to coordinate what they do. These activities can be brought together under a common set of goals by agreement of all involved. The task of planning for the future and dealing with change when it happens everyone in an organization can play a part in, either directly or through delegates. And the identity of the organization and the principles that help define its goals can be a matter for participatory decision making or processes like constitutional design that all members of an organization have a say in.

Walker wrote of how in workers’ cooperatives, the operation (primary activities) and metasystem (coordination, planning, ethos) functions can be actualized by the same people stepping into different roles “when the work was being done they were Operation, when planning was necessary they articulated the Metasystem. The fundamental co-operative principle of self-management means that there is no clear division in the roles of people working within the group.”18

Some of the work cyberneticians like Walker – alongside Angela Espinosa and others – have done over the last few decades points in this direction and takes us some of the way towards the design of freedom that Beer called for in 1973. This is not an unrestricted freedom, a liberty without constraint. Those involved in the basic activities of the organization are limited in their autonomy. They are part of an overarching organization with goals and plans, however they are defined. But these limits, these goals, these plans, are not set by managers, bosses or bureaucrats higher up the organizational chart. They are limits set through participatory democratic agreement and are based on consent, not subservience.

Importantly, the VSM is not a blueprint for how organizations should be structured. It is a tool those in organizations can use to help understand the dynamics and patterns of organization and communication that make their organizations effective. As Beer put it in Diagnosing the System for Organizations, it is not about a model of organization that is true or false. It is a way of thinking through organizational problems that is either more or less useful. As such, it can be used to help diagnose problems as they arise, as it has been very recently, for example, in the Pagkaki workers’ cooperative in Greece as well as in a number of cooperatives Walker was involved in.

  • Cybernetics in and beyond the current crisis

The VSM can also be utilized in thinking through how and why certain examples of anarchist(ic) organization work, or don’t, as the case may be. Occupy Wall Street, at its most effective, was a system in which each working group had a level of autonomy, coordinated through formal and informal communication with other working groups. But working groups were also bound by decisions made at the General Assembly or Spokes Council. And these institutions were not a body or power above working groups but forums for consensual agreement and negotiation that all could take part in, directly in the General Assembly or through delegates at the Spokes Council.

While the VSM may not have been used by Occupy Wall Street activists, that the Spokes Council was brought into being due to the inability of the General Assembly to do the kind of planning required of the camp speaks to the VSM’s capacity to reflect insights that those intimately involved in practices of self-organization will often come to themselves. Again, the VSM is not a blueprint. It is a way of understanding and naming some fundamental truths of effective self-organization. Like any truths of this sort they can be filled out in different ways. Occupy was one such way.

As so many of us have engaged in mutual aid groups since the start of last year – something that will surely continue as the social and political crisis deepens even as the medical crisis passes – might the VSM not also be a tool we use in diagnosing the problems we encounter? What does the imposition of charity dynamics and co-optation by local government bureaucrats mean not only for the political agenda of mutual aid groups but also for their ability to effectively respond to a complex and rapidly changing situation? Do the hierarchies that develop and the associated slowness and distance of decision-making threaten the very capacity of mutual aid groups to do what they were set up for: to respond quickly to the needs of those involved? As many anarchists know only too well, mutual aid works best when it is decentralized, autonomous, and highly adaptive. The VSM gives us a way of articulating that and pinpointing with precision the communication and decision-making blockages that emerge.

This is how, almost sixty years later, we can begin to take the logical next steps of John McEwan’s article in Anarchy, and envisage an anarchist cybernetics. It is a cybernetics that builds on the foundational principles of complexity and adaptability, on a scientific understanding of self-organization in systems, on the fundamental demand for autonomy and decentralization, on the recognition of the importance of organizational coordination. More than this, it is a cybernetics that makes no unfounded leaps in its thinking about organization, from autonomy to hierarchy, from decentralization to a top-down corporate or governmental structure.

With increasing interest in radical articulations of cybernetics in recent years (in the work of libertarian Marxists such as the General Intellect Unit and Jeremy Gross as well as anarchist readings such as those of John Duda, Aurora Apolito and Tektological Serendipity), now is perhaps a better time than any to look back across this often misunderstood and mischaracterized tradition and pull out those elements that can advance our theoretical and practical understanding of self-organization.

This essay began talking about the origins of the word ‘cybernetics’ in Plato’s metaphor of the ship. Plato likened the ship’s captain to the individual who wields autocratic power in a city-state. Leo Tolstoy used a similar metaphor. In War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote, “it seems to every administrator that it is only by his efforts that the whole population under his rule is kept going. […] While the sea of history remains calm the ruler-administrator in his frail bark, holding on with a boat hook to the ship of the people and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to.”19 But as the storm hits, in Ruth Kinna’s words, “the captain is revealed both to himself and the crew as feeble and useless in the face of the crisis.”20 If we draw cybernetics and anarchism together, we can reveal to the light not only the folly of the captains of state but also the mechanisms of self-organization that might help us chart a different course.