Here are three articles on Socialism in Chile under Allende and the role of Simon Beer and others who attempted to use cybernetics in planning. The first is from the NY Times. The second is from the Financial Post. The final article is from the
National Post and was written by the son of Stafford Beer who was the cyberneticist who helped Allende.
March 28, 2008 / New York TIMES
Before '73 Coup, Chile Tried to Find the Right Software for Socialism
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
SANTIAGO, Chile — When military forces loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet
staged a coup here in September 1973, they made a surprising
discovery. Salvador Allende's Socialist government had quietly
embarked on a novel experiment to manage Chile's economy using a
clunky mainframe computer and a network of telex machines.
The project, called Cybersyn, was the brainchild of A. Stafford Beer,
a visionary Briton who employed his "cybernetic" concepts to help Mr.
Allende find an alternative to the planned economies of Cuba and the
Soviet Union. After the coup it became the subject of intense military
In developing Cybersyn, Mr. Beer changed the lives of the bright young
Chileans he worked with here. Some 35 years later, this little-known
feature of Mr. Allende's abortive Socialist transformation was
remembered in an exhibit in a museum beneath La Moneda, the
A Star Trek-like chair with controls in the armrests was a replica of
those in a prototype operations room. Mr. Beer planned for the room to
receive computer reports based on data flowing from telex machines
connected to factories up and down this 2,700-mile-long country.
Managers were to sit in seven of the contoured chairs and make
critical decisions about the reports displayed on projection screens.
While the operations room never became fully operational, Cybersyn
gained stature within the Allende government for helping to
outmaneuver striking workers in October 1972. That helped planners
realize — as the pioneers of the modern-day Internet did — that the
communications network was more important than computing power, which
Chile did not have much of, anyway. A single I.B.M. 360/50 mainframe,
which had less storage capacity than most flash drives today,
processed the factories' data, with a Burroughs 3500 later filling in.
Cybersyn was born in July 1971 when Fernando Flores, then a
28-year-old government technocrat, sent a letter to Mr. Beer seeking
his help in organizing Mr. Allende's economy by applying cybernetic
concepts. Mr. Beer was excited by the prospect of being able to test
He wanted to use the telex communications system — a network of
teletypewriters — to gather data from factories on variables like
daily output, energy use and labor "in real time," and then use a
computer to filter out the important pieces of economic information
the government needed to make decisions.
Mr. Beer set up teams of computer programmers in England and Chile,
and began making regular trips to Santiago to direct the project. He
was paid $500 a day while working in Chile, a sizable sum here at the
time, said Raúl Espejo, who was Cybersyn's operations director.
The Englishman became a mentor to the Chilean team, many of them in
their 20s. On one visit he tried to inspire them by sharing Richard
Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," the story of a seagull who
follows his dream to master the art of flying against the wishes of
An imposing man with a long gray-flecked beard, Mr. Beer was a college
dropout who challenged the young Chileans with tough questions. He
shared his love for writing poetry and painting, and brought books and
classical music from Europe. He smoked cigars and drank whiskey and
wine constantly, "but was never losing his head," Mr. Espejo said.
Most of the Cybersyn team scrupulously avoided talking about politics,
and some even had far-right-wing views, said Isaquino Benadof, who led
the team of Chilean engineers designing the Cybersyn software.
One early challenge was how to build the communications network. Short
of money, the team found 500 unused telex machines in a warehouse of
the national telecommunications company.
Cybersyn's turning point came in October 1972, when a strike by
truckers and retailers nearly paralyzed the economy. The
interconnected telex machines, exchanging 2,000 messages a day, were a
potent instrument, enabling the government to identify and organize
alternative transportation resources that kept the economy moving.
The strike dragged on for nearly a month. While it weakened Mr.
Allende's Popular Unity party, the government survived, and Cybersyn
was praised for playing a major role. "From that point on the
communications center became part of whatever was happening," Mr.
"Chile run by computer," blared The British Observer on Jan. 7, 1973,
as word of the experiment began leaking out.
But as the country's political and security situation worsened, Mr.
Beer and his Chilean team realized that time was running out.
Mr. Allende remained committed to Cybersyn to the end. On Sept. 8,
1973, he gave orders to move the operations room to the presidential
palace. But three days later the military took over; Mr. Allende died
Military officials soon confronted Cybersyn's leaders, seeking to
understand their political motivations. Mr. Benadof said he was
interrogated at least three times. Mr. Espejo, after being questioned,
was warned to leave the country; two months after the coup he fled to
The military never could grasp Cybersyn, and finally dismantled the
operations room. Several other Cybersyn team members went into exile.
Mr. Flores, who was both economy and finance minister in the Allende
government, spent three years in military concentration camps. After
his release, he moved with his family to California to study at
Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, where
he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy.
He later was one of the inventors of the Coordinator, a program that
tracked spoken commitments between workers within a company, one of
the first forays into "work flow" software. He became a millionaire
and returned to Chile, where today he is a senator representing the
Mr. Beer, who died in 2002, helped some team members secure college
teaching positions in England. That included Mr. Espejo, who dedicated
himself to advancing cybernetics.
"The Chilean project completely transformed Stafford's life, and he
obviously had a huge impact on all of us," Mr. Espejo said. "Clearly,
his work was not recognized during his lifetime. But what he has
written will remain for a long time."
Here is the Financial Post article.
Saturday, March 01, 2008
Socialist dreams always turn totalitarian
Peter Foster, Financial Post
Published: Saturday, March 01, 2008
On Nov. 12, 1971, Salvador Allende, the president of Chile, sat down in the presidential palace in Santiago opposite a large, bearded Englishman named Stafford Beer.
Allende, a committed socialist, had been in power for a year, during which he had unleashed a wave of expropriations and populist measures that threatened massive inflation. The economy was in turmoil. Beer, the eccentric founder of "cybernetic management," had come to lay out a master plan for control of the rapidly expanding nationalized sector of the Chilean economy. On a sheet of paper, Beer drew the "neurological" basis for his system. Allende, who had trained as a doctor, reportedly "immediately grasped the biological inspiration behind Beer's cybernetic model and knowingly nodded throughout the explanation."
Beer sketched his "viable system model" based on five hierarchic levels. After he had drawn the top "box," he declared theatrically: "And this, companero presidente, is you." Allende leaned back and with a broad smile said: "At last, the people."
Two years after his first meeting with Beer, Allende was killed during the coup that installed the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
He has since become an icon for crushed socialist dreams. This view is reflected in Naomi Klein's recent book, The Shock Doctrine. Strangely, however, Ms. Klein makes no mention of Stafford Beer, who provides valuable insight into what "socialist control" looks like in practice. Ms. Klein's oversight is especially puzzling since Stafford Beer's story has a strong Canadian angle. In 1973, he gave the CBC Massey lectures with the telling title: Designing Freedom. He lived much of the latter part of his life in Toronto, and consulted to several levels of Canadian government.
Leftist commentators such as Ms. Klein persistently claim that socialism
has "never really been tried." Those countries that called themselves socialist or Communist were always either repressive perversions of the ideal, or were thwarted by the dark machinations of their capitalist enemies. The latter is the conventional leftist take on Chile, and certainly has an element of truth. The U.S. companies that Allende expropriated indeed ran to Washington, which sought to undermine his regime. However, the left inevitably fails to put enough emphasis on the role of Allende's own policies in destroying the Chilean economy. While his Keynesian delusions and reflexive grab for assets would have been damaging enough, they were as nothing compared with the regime's naivete in supporting Beer's "Project Cybersyn," (a word formed from melding "cybernetics" and "synergy.")
Beer was a larger-than-life character, a polymath who dabbled in Eastern religions, poetry and painting. He was also a well-known management consultant who had previously held senior positions in the British steel and the publishing industry. Beer was a specialist in operations research (OR), the study of organizing systems to produce the required results, and had melded OR with cybernetics, the science of control mechanisms which had been founded by Norbert Weiner. Above all, however, Beer was a committed socialist.
Beer's Cybersyn utilized a network of telex machines that ran the length of Chile. These theoretically provided the real-time data from state factories and mines that would then be fed into a specially programmed central computer. The whole operation would be overseen from a control module, the "Opsroom," that resembled the deck of the starship Enterprise. There, seven controllers would act in a "symbiotic relationship" with the computer "to amplify their respective powers in one new synergy of enhanced intelligence." The seven would sit surrounded by numerous screens -- including an eight-by-four-foot master screen -- in ergonomically designed swivel chairs. These chairs' arms featured a series of knobs that the controllers would bash to control the commanding heights of the Chilean economy. The knob thumping was intended by Beer as part of the "drama" of cybernetic control: centralized government as performance art. (More practically, it was based on the assumption that the seven masters of the economy would be keyboard illiterate. Beer apparently didn't want women typists in the room.) Nationalized enterprises would be dynamically modelled in terms of "quantified flow-charts" that would give the central puppeteers all they needed to know. Glitches would be indicated by "algedonic signals."
True to solid socialist principles, this enormously elaborate system would, according to Beer, facilitate worker participation. How wasn't clear. The Russian and Cuban revolutions had somehow missed out on this "democratic" element, but Chile would be -- as with every socialist experiment -- "different." It wasn't.
Beer rejected accusations that his system was Orwellian, but was soon speaking the language of thinly veiled threats. Opposition was allegedly rooted in the "vindictiveness" of the "rich world." Media criticism was written off as part of a corporate plot. Those who had been expropriated had to "talk the new language [of cybernetic viability] or get out." Those who refused to leave were accused of "polarizing" society.
Cybersyn, not surprisingly, never became fully operational, and its only alleged success was in helping the government respond to a nationwide 1972 strike. But that was a very long way from running the public sector, much less an economy. Meanwhile, U.S. computer guru Herb Grosch wrote: "It is a good thing for humanity, and for Chile in particular, that [Cybersyn] is only a bad dream." (Beer got expressions of interest in his system from the repressive regimes in South Africa and Brazil).
What saved Cybersyn from descending into utter farce and/or totalitarian nightmare was the Pinochet coup. According to his credulous biographer, Beer subsequently wondered if the "success" of his experiment might havehastenedAllende's fall and the "demise of democracy."
Beer went off to live for some years in isolation in a cottage in Wales, then went back to consulting. In a speech he gave in 1990, he admitted-- while castigating the Thatcher and Reagan regimes -- that countries seemed to "go into chaos" as soon as he arrived. He died in 2002, apparently without ever grasping why.
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Finally the National Post article:
Allende was no totalitarian
Simon Beer, National Post
Published: Saturday, March 29, 2008
As Stafford Beer's son, I was saddened to read Peter Foster's article of March 1, "Socialist dreams always turn totalitarian." Foster seems to have rather a poor grasp of the politics, economics and business management involved in President Salvador Allende's Chile in general and Stafford Beer's work in particular.
He misses the point about the "at last the people" anecdote. Stafford Beer ended with "
and this companero presidente ..." whereupon Allende finished the sentence for him "
at last -- the people." The point is that it wasn't about the president, but about the people. The way Foster writes it, it doesn't make any sense at all.
To claim the Chilean economy was in "turmoil" is fallacious. Allende's super-inflation model was a deliberate act. The premise being that if 5% of the population have all the money and 95% have none, then inflate the cost of everything and subsidize the poor, who receive food, clothing, education and housing for free. The rich meanwhile, have to pay $50 for a loaf of bread and don't even think about a mink coat. To claim this is "turmoil" shows a misunderstanding of the circumstance. Allende knew exactly what he was doing.
Foster's comment that "project Cybersyn never became fully operational" is demonstrably wrong. The distinguished Cybernetician Raul Espejo was responsible for the day-to-day running of the operations room with his colleagues until the American-backed coup d'etat put Pinochet in power, forcing Raul to escape to England. His colleagues? Well, some escaped, some were imprisoned and tortured and some were killed. So tell me again, Mr Foster, about socialist totalitarianism.
Foster quotes Herb Grosch (who knew nothing about what took place or was achieved in Chile). Perhaps Henry Kissinger, who played such a big part in Allende's death, would have been more apposite: "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."
It wasn't Allende, a democratically elected president, remember, who herded people into the national stadium and machine-gunned them, it was America's puppet dictator Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet (with the help and support of the American State Department and the CIA), tortured and murdered many thousands of Chilean people for which he would be harangued as a war criminal until death saved him even greater public ignominy. Foster's premise that socialism turns to totalitarianism seems weak in the extreme when using Allende's Chile as a paradigm. Chile produced most of the world's copper; America wanted it. The Chilean government was truly "thwarted by the dark machinations of their capitalist enemies," despite Foster's assertion to the contrary.
Foster suggests "the left inevitably fails to put enough emphasis on the role of Allende's own policies in destroying the Chilean economy." Not surprising, really. The fact that these policies were outside the American accounting norm may be hard for Foster to understand, but then, I suggest his understanding of the whole project is, at best, a little weak.
The summation of Stafford Beer's life, with its paucity of information, is rather akin to suggesting that Kennedy was a man who liked women, dabbled in politics and died. Stafford Beer was indeed a polymath. His books on Cybernetics and decision-making in management are read and respected around the world. Cybernetics is now an international business philosophy. If you enter Stafford Beer into Google, you get 137,000 references. To deride him for his politics is both irrelevant and asinine.
Foster reveals his lack of understanding of the interconnected telex machines that ran the length of Chile, "theoretically" providing real-time data. "Theory" becomes "reality" once the system is working.
And work it did. As for the operations room, he totally misses the point yet again because he fails to understand how the chairs worked. Beer proved that "girls working at keyboards" were not necessary to input data into the system. This could all be achieved by the controls in the arm of the chair: a whole new concept of system control in 1972. That was why "girls working at keyboards" were not required. It wasn't some misogynist plot. Foster describes Cybersyn as "an enormously elaborate system," yet in truth, Cybersyn was a deceptively simple system offering democratic inputs at every point along the operational chain. There were literally thousands of inputs, filtered so that the data weren't overwhelming. Had Foster understood the Cybersyn system, he would have known this.
Foster isn't always wrong, "
Chile would be -- as with every socialist experiment --different. It wasn't."
How true. It was the American politicians and their military, coupled with the CIA and Pinochet, that guaranteed that it wouldn't be.
Foster suggests that Stafford Beer expressed the view that criticism of Cybersyn was part of a "corporate plot." On the contrary, Beer understood corporate inadequacy and its inability to function as a viable system. He wrote many books on the subject. The corporate world would have been incapable of organizing such a plot. More likely, he riled against ill-informed members of the press, writing simplistic text about matters that they didn't understand and couldn't be bothered to adequately research.
Quod erat demonstrandum, Mr. Foster.
Perhaps we should leave the last word to Henry Kissinger, that champion of freedom-loving people everywhere: "The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer." - Simon Beer is Stafford Beer's son.
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