Allende's Cybernetic Revolution: Project Cybersyn, and What We Must Learn

The story of Chilean President Salvador Allende's efforts to secure Chile's road to socialism through cutting-edge central planning

In September of 1970, Salvador Allende became Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist leader when he won a plurality in the vote to become President of the Republic of Chile, despite the CIA running a red-scare, anti-Allende campaign throughout the election. The Chilean electoral system meant that as Allende had not achieved an outright majority of the vote, the National Congress of the country would vote on whether he, or Jorge Allesandri - who had gained the second most votes - would become President. In the 1958 election, the reverse of this had happened - Allende’s vote share fell short of Allesandri’s, and, as was consistent with an unwritten rule of Chilean politics, Congress opted for the individual with the strongest vote share. In this case, the National Congress ratified Allende and Popular Unity, the left-wing alliance that backed him, to power, after they agreed to sign a document ensuring that they would uphold the Chilean constitution.

The Popular Unity government was committed to implementing radical social, political, and economic change in the shape of socialism, whilst operating within the confines of the constitution. The government introduced land reforms, nationalisation, and support for rural workers, all of which effectively lead to rapid improvements to the lives of Chile’s working class and the economy of the country: by the end of 1971, the real wages of factory workers had rose dramatically by 30%, the nation’s GDP was up by almost 8%, production by just shy of 14%, and every single major mining firm, as well as 68 of Chile’s most vital industries, had been brought into governmental control.

Trouble Ahead

Chile had embarked on the road to socialism, but the path would be arduous. The government had instant success, but the patchwork assortment of factories, mines, and other industries - some of which were newly nationalised, and some which had been state controlled for some time - were becoming ever harder to oversee and manage. The sheer pace at which Allende and Popular Unity were carrying out their nationalisation process was also creating issues; the administration found itself lacking in both raw materials for production, and qualified, experienced individuals who could manage a huge, expanding, public industry sector, with an increasingly vast number of employees due to Allende’s focus on bringing down levels of unemployment, and an economy that was harder to control and measure by the day.

To add to this, the United States were already meddling. After their failed anti-Allende campaign during the elections, they attempted, at first, to block Chile’s road to socialism through discreet methods: funding the opposition parties and media, reducing their aid levels, and an invisible blockade. The US government also derailed any attempts from Allende to renegotiate the debt that had been left by Chile’s previous administration under Eduardo Frei Montalva of the Christian Democratic Party and Liberal United Conservative alliance.

Once again, the path to implement socialism in the Global South would be a David and Goliath story. However, buoyed by their early successes, in the face of these difficulties, some members of the Chilean government saw a way through the crisis that looked to be looming ahead: computer and communications technology.

Building Cybersyn

It was not, exactly, the last days of Rome, but the situation in Chile required political imagination, so in the face of growing managerial and economic tasks, Fernando Flores, the Chilean production development coordinator and later minister of finance, felt that a new and pioneering response was necessary. Flores wanted to avoid the successful, but often cumbersome and top-down, Soviet model and instead advocated for a technocratic system to control the nationalised industry. Although today the word ‘technocratic’ can bring thoughts of neoliberalism to mind, in Flores’ case he believed it could be used to extend collective politics in an entirely anti-neoliberal sense. As a doctor himself, Salvador Allende was in favour of this scientific proposal and, as requested by Flores and his advisor, Raul Espejo, he agreed to employ the British operations research scientist and management cybernetics castle-builder Stafford Beer. Flores and Espejo had been drawn to Beer’s theories surrounding cybernetics and their usefulness in regards to management, and they believed that this could help them to build a decentralised economic system. Allende wholeheartedly agreed.

At the time, Stafford Beer was working as a consultant in management cybernetics, an area that he himself had devised. When Flores contacted Beer querying how it would be possible to implement his theories in Chile in order to develop socialist control of industry, he dropped the majority of his other projects immediately. This came to a shock to the Chileans, who were expecting, at most, Beer to send one of his advisors over; but Beer had become dissatisfied with the lack of implementation of his ideas that his consultancy roles were providing, and as a man sympathetic to Allende’s socialist project he saw this as a perfect opportunity. When Beer met Allende, he felt that he had come across a kindred spirit. After spelling out his scheme to Allende on old torn-up pieces of paper, he believed that they were on the same page: cybernetics was to be used to decentralise the economy and allow worker control, not an expansion of unnecessary governmental oversight and intrusion. They both felt that this was an endeavour which, fundamentally, was to allow the ideal synthesis of freedom and cooperation. Beer threw all his weight into creating a cybernetic management system in Chile that was to become Project Cybersyn - named after their pursuit of the combination of cybernetics and synergy.

In Chile, I know that I am making the maximum effort towards the devolution of power. The government made their revolution about it; I find it good Cybernetics. Stafford Beer

When Beer first arrived in Chile, the task ahead was daunting, so they set to work hastily. There was a joke, at the time, amongst Chilean officials who were amused that whilst the rest of the nation’s people, and government, were fawning over Fidel Castro’s visit, Fernando Flores instead went to meet a relatively unknown British management consultant; albeit one who could have been mistaken for Karl Marx at a quick glance. Constructing such a pioneering project was never going to be easy: ARPANET, the American military technology and predecessor of the internet was still in development in the United States, and the Soviet Union - whose economists had, as Justin Reynolds notes, for decades been inspired by Alexander Bogdanov’s Bolshevik science fiction novel Red Star, and its rationally state-planned Martian society - saw their previous venture to develop a similar project to the Chileans, seeking to manage their planned economy through technological means, fall just short in terms of decentralisation. The task facing Chile was made even more difficult by the fact that the computing resources in the country were, to say the least, insufficient: at the outset of this project, the whole of Chile was home to only 50 - mostly outdated - computers, compared to 48,000 in the US at the time. The Popular Unity government itself had access to just four, extremely average, mainframe computers, and whilst these machines were entirely adequate, their quantity was not.

To make this worse, IBM’s activity inside Chile since Allende’s premiership began had become limited, as they reduced their presence in an attempt to avoid nationalisation. Alongside this, the Nixon government had implemented a sort of covert blockade in an attempt to disrupt Chile’s economy so as to further prevent the spread of socialism in Latin America, so Chile had little to no recourse to import the tech that they would have needed to place a computer in every factory as they may have liked. They would have to be much more innovative. The previous administration had left behind 500 unused telex machines - tech used to send electronic text based messages that died out with the growth of fax machines. Beer, Flores, Espejo, Allende, and the team - mainly consisting of individuals that Flores had previously worked with and therefore could trust - believed that management cybernetics would help them to implement what they needed with the little technology that they had. Each factory that was under government control had its own telex machine installed, and this in turn was linked to two government mainframe computers in the control room located in the capital city, Santiago. These telex machines fed a steady stream of numbers such a raw material levels, absentee levels, and production output back to the mainframe computers on a daily basis; a feat even more impressive in comparison with the 6 months it took for most developed countries in the world at the time to process this kind of economic data.

This advanced prototype of Project Cybersyn was developed rapidly by the team, as they all fully understood its importance. Beer, himself, was constantly working; spreading his time thinly between the team in Chile and working on it with his own team back in England. The prototype was based mainly on the Viable System Model, a management theory founded through Beer’s application of knowledge and understanding of the human nervous system to companies and governments. This model attempted to create a balance between centralised and decentralised control by allowing for vertical and lateral communication, in a way that could be almost self-organised. It allowed semi-autonomous control for the factories and workers whilst providing, at the same time, an avenue for control from above where it was needed. The system included a decision making tool that had an economic simulator built in: using cyberstride, a statistical modelling software that the team developed, it could attempt to forecast the outcome of any possible decisions. The system itself could make predictions and adjustments where they were necessary, and if a problem arose that could not be remedied firstly at one level - the factory - then it would be forwarded to a higher level of decision making - the control room in Santiago.

By far the most famous part of Project Cybersyn, though, was its space-age, Star Trek-esque, hexagonal operations room. The operations room was designed by Gui Bonsiepe, the German interface designer and design theorist. The room’s walls were covered in screens that showed economic data, and any areas that needed governmental attention. The enduring image of Project Cybersyn is that of a wildly over-ambitious project but it was, at its heart, deeply rational, even down to the design of this room: 7 swivel chairs were installed - an odd number to avoid any potential deadlocks; there was no table as they felt it could limit discussion; and geometric buttons were installed as they understood that the average worker of the time would have had little experience using keyboards, showing that the design team had class at the heart of their creation. Most importantly, though, there was a space to hold your whiskey glass.

Cybersyn’s Test

This is our hour of truth, and yours too.Fernando Flores to Stafford Beer, 1972

The Cybersyn system had quickly, even in its incipient stage, managed to drastically boost the pace and consistency of the government’s ability to communicate across the long, thin, Latin American nation. Whilst it may not have been quite as advanced as the United States’ ARPANET system, its implementation was far beyond its time. Across Chile, Cybersyn and the methods and theories that powered it were snowballing: workers themselves were recreating the graphics that the government used, and communication, requests, and grievances between the government and its factories were being dealt with efficiently thanks to the network of telex machines.

In October of 1972, though, Project Cybersyn faced its greatest test. During a wave of strikes led by the Chilean bourgeoisie, the right-wing union Confederación Nacional del Transporte (CNT) brought about a strike of 165 trucking companies and around 40,000 drivers. At the time, the CNT was headed by León Vilarín, one of the leaders of Patria y Libertad, the far-right paramilitary group. With the explicit support of the US president Richard Nixon, and $2 million worth of financial support from the CIA, the strike attempted to cripple Chile’s economy by shutting down the transportation sector, disrupting the transport of food and goods, and blocking key access roads. Through the use of Project Cybersyn, still in its developmental prototype stage, the Allende administration was able to overcome this strike by using the network to identify 200 trucks that remained loyal to the government. Staff and government ministers were in the control room constantly during this strike, with Raul Espejo stating ‘we felt like we were the centre of the universe’. Cybersyn had allowed the government to see which areas most needed their help, and who they could rely on to provide this by improvising buses, coordinating food deliveries to areas that were most in need, and distributing materials and even consumer goods using the truckers that were not striking. As a result of this, the government lived to fight another day and the Chilean road to socialism marched on, although it now left the administration on the back foot.

The next year a similar truck drivers strike was carried out, and again Cybersyn gave the government the means to defeat it. During this second strike, with only 10-30% of trucks, the Popular Unity government managed to keep anywhere from 50-70% of food supply levels, and 95% of vital industry saw normal levels of raw material delivery. Despite this victory, the opposition increased their violence and began to attack those who were not striking, killing many, blowing up electricity towers and destroying oil pipelines - the government looked to be losing its control, as Espejo notes: ‘we felt that we were winning the battle of industrial control and distribution, but the political forces were too strong.’ Chile’s working class began to affiliate with more militant left-wing groups to prepare for armed battle, and the right wing military began to increase their crack down, increasing their hostility towards workers and carrying out weapons searches in areas known to be Popular Unity strongholds.

The Fall of Allende and Cybersyn

On the 10th of September, 1973, a room was being readied for an upgraded installation of the Project Cybersyn system - Allende himself had requested that this be located in the Presidential Palace. A day later, opposition forces - backed by the CIA - decided to bomb La Moneda using the Chilean Air Force in order to bring down Allende and the Popular Unity government. Back in England, whilst attempting to rally support for the Allende government, Stafford Beer saw the words he’d dreaded most: ‘Allende assassinated’. Most of the Cybersyn team fled the country; some were captured, interviewed, and even held for years. Allende himself ostensibly committed suicide whilst under attack in the Presidential Palace, after rejecting the military’s request for an unconditional surrender.

Beer’s time in Chile had had a profound impact on him, and he spent years helping to get his friends and former colleagues out of Chile, and away from Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship which saw tens of thousands killed, tortured, or forcibly disappeared throughout the military junta’s time in power, as well as hundreds of thousands driven into exile. After finally helping to secure the release of Fernando Flores, his experiences lead him to reconsider the wealthy and privileged lifestyle that he had been living; he left his home, his marriage, and most of his worldly belongings behind and relocated to a cottage in Wales in a move that many believe demonstrates his survivor’s guilt and his dismay at the destruction of Chilean socialism.

The operations room itself was destroyed by those involved with the coup, with Pinochet’s incoming regime not looking favourable upon its democratic and open nature. Further expansions in cybernetic technology that were in development alongside Cybersyn, such as a meter to analyse the public opinion that speeches by the government generated, were scrapped, too. It should come as no surprise that the dictatorship installed by the military coup saw no use for Project Cybersyn, a system that was primarily tasked with assisting the state’s management of industry and the economy, given that the Chicago Boys had positioned themselves - with the influence of the CIA, who had worked for years to train these economists - as the intellectual driving force behind the regime’s so called ‘national reconstructions project’. The Chicago Boys were a group of neoliberal, Chilean economists who had trained under Milton Friedman and were proponents of the American’s monetarist theories. They advocated for, and implemented, shock therapy: rapid economic liberalisation, privatisation of the previously nationalised Chilean industries, and drastic cuts in public spending. Hand in hand with this, Pinochet’s regime - advised by the Chicago Boys - rolled back agrarian reform, and made over 80,000 government workers unemployed. Friedman himself had promoted this approach, claiming that shock therapy was ‘the only medicine’. With Friedman gleefully parading in his role as their cheerleader, these economic reforms facilitated the wide scale removal of wealth away from the working classes and into the hands of a small group of elites, and, in turn, a ruthless decrease in wages and a sharp rise in unemployment levels.

Before the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity government, unemployment in the Republic was at a level that was impressive in comparison to any nation in the world at 3.1%. But by 1976, a mere 3 years into the military junta’s rule, around one fourth of the Chilean population were surviving solely through the support of the Church and humanitarian institutions, living with no income whatsoever due to unemployment. Even those who found themselves in work struggled to survive in post-coup Chile; the minimum wage was so inadequate that it lead to the slow starvation of Chile’s working class, as families who had to survive on it could afford only around half of the food that they needed. In addition to this, harrowingly, in Pinochet’s first year in power, infant mortality - one of the key indicators of a country’s function - rose by almost 20%, after decreasing under Allende. When juxtaposed with the Allende years, Pinochet’s dictatorship and the Chicago Boys’ neoliberal economic policies are exposed for the forceful project of upward wealth transfer that they really were. Even today, after a period of economic growth and reasonable stability, Chile’s levels of inequality have never recovered from the destruction caused by the coup and the following regime.

Lessons for the Left

While Project Cybersyn was never fully completed, its successes are evident: improving communication across the country, and defeating the right-wing truckers strike that threatened to paralyse the country were no mean feat for a project so early in its development. The ambitiousness shown by the Chilean leadership is something that should inspire the left across the world into taking bold steps when they have the opportunity and power to do so. In a world where the Bitcoin network uses more energy than the entire country of Hungary, and produces more CO2 than one million transatlantic flights, Cybersyn’s ability to do so much with so little is encouraging as it shows that sometimes, living within our means just takes some imagination and political will.

The spirit of innovation that drove Project Cybersyn hasn’t left us entirely, although the technology available is today certainly in an entirely different league. The People’s Republic of China, of all states currently attempting to build socialism, has put the most stock into advancing tech and the ways in which this can be used to better manage infrastructure - most notably through their collaboration with several technology companies in their pioneering City Brain scheme in Hangzhou, the capital of China’s Zhejiang province. The City Brain initiative was devised in an attempt to create a ‘smart city’ using AI and deep learning technology in order to manage water supplies, reduce traffic congestion, and generally provide a smoother, safer existence for the people living there.

Through tracking and analysing the data that the City Brain infrastructure collects, it can give live predictions of traffic levels, enable better traffic flow by suggesting more efficient travel routes and controlling traffic lights, and it can also make more long term predictions using the data available to it, which can help the government to alter bus routes and plot out new road building projects where they are most needed. On top of this, City Brain detects any road traffic accidents, and dispatches emergency services to the location at a much faster rate than before - in the Xiaoshan district ambulances are now taking half the time they previously did to respond.

This scheme has been a resounding success; with waiting times at traffic lights being reduced by 15%, improved traffic flow, shorter journey times, and a 92% accuracy rate in reporting accidents, so it comes as no surprise that over 500 Chinese cities now have similar projects in the pipelines. Whilst this project is still in its relative infancy, it is expected to branch out into further areas to help with China’s quest for environmentally sustainable cities and a better standard of living. Although City Brain’s use differs from Cybersyn’s - as it is a city planning scheme rather than an industrial one - it is easy to see how the technology itself could be applied in the industrial sphere in the foreseeable future.

We are at a crossroads: the hegemony of the neoliberal order is under threat and the left must do all they can to create the new hegemony - where the Bennites and the Eurocommunists failed, we must not. Their defeat to the Reaganites, the Thatcherites, and, ultimately, the neoliberals, has given way to wide-scale privatisation, the erosion of labour rights, a bruising demolition of trade union power, and crushing austerity across the globe. We cannot afford to lose again. In Salvador Allende’s last address to the Chilean people, shortly before he sought to defend himself using an AK-47 gifted to him by Fidel Castro - this being the only time he’d ever fired a weapon - he implored the workers to:

Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.

The great avenues look, once more, to be opening, and it is vital that we walk down them with courage, and the imagination to try something new and innovative when it is needed. Let that be the lesson we learn from Project Cybersyn.

Further Reading