Can Cybersocialist Planning Become a Reality?

The digital revolution of recent decades allows for much more developed resource allocation than was possible in the 20th century. Cybersocialist planning, some argue, can provide for a rational allocation of resources, under real democratic control.

Computer-generated image of Project Cybersyn operations room. (Rama / Wikimedia Commons)

In the heat of the digital revolution of the last four decades, information and computing technologies have permeated our societies to the point of becoming practically ubiquitous, connecting billions of people to each other. The socialist movement was not going to be any exception — and in recent years several groups have emerged under the umbrella of what could be called cybercommunism.

Despite what it may seem, this is not just about communists using computers. In this article we intend to argue that cybernetics, as a science of information and control, complements the critique of Marxist political economy. Indeed, it does so in such a way that it allows us to glimpse the informational substratum hidden behind bourgeois realities, and to compare these latter with alternative institutions in terms of their efficiency and adaptability.

To understand the essential characteristics of this new theoretical paradigm, it is convenient to make a historical review of the concepts, authors, and currents from which it arises. This will ultimately be the intention of this writing: to outline a kind of “family tree” of cybercommunism. Although we will not delve too deeply into it due to space issues, we believe that the schematization that we propose could facilitate a didactical approach to the proposal, as well as define new lines of research.

From Marx to Wiener

This is the story of how two relatively disparate concepts end up coming together in a coherent way: communism and cybernetics. The former is better known in the circles in which we find ourselves. We are talking about the political expression of the labor movement since the First International, systematized, among others, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Theoretically, this would start from the critique of political economy exposed in Capital. The denaturalization of bourgeois institutions (markets, money, prices, profitability incentives, etc.) and the analysis of their internal laws would open the way to pursue a radically democratic planning of the economy: the revolutionary political program capable of breaking loose of those laws.

Now, what about cybernetics? We are talking about an interdisciplinary field of study that took its first steps in the design of antiaircraft weapons for World War II and was consolidated by projecting innovative approaches in fields such as neuroscience or ecology. Living beings began to be conceptualized as complex systems that obtain information from their environment through the senses, which is transmitted to the brain, where it is processed, allowing efficient decision-making based on it — behavior that could be modeled as a control system that reacts to certain input signals, generating an output signal and creating what is known as a feedback loop (between the individual and its environment).

Well, the feat of cybernetics was to discover that this type of behavior occurs, in one way or another, in many different realities. Norbert Wiener, who is considered by many to be the father of the discipline, defined it in 1948 as “the field of control and communication theories, whether in the machine or the animal,” explaining that such control processes were not only not confined to the animal world, but could be emulated, creating “automatons” that would also be capable of adapting and interacting with a changing environment.

The development of such automata, in all their complexity, would have been impossible were it not for two of the greatest theoretical developments of the last century: the information theory by Claude Shannon and Alan Turing’s Turing machine. Shannon gave the concept of “information” a mathematical formalization, granting an arsenal of theoretical tools that allowed the development of much more efficient mechanisms for the transmission and storage of information than those used up till then. For his part, Turing demonstrated the possibility of encoding any computable mathematical function step by step — that is, any algorithm, in a finite sequence of bits known today as a program or application. Furthermore, he was also able to show that such binary code could be processed by a universal Turing machine, capable of implementing any other Turing machine, thus establishing the foundations of today’s computers, capable of executing any program.

Influenced by these approaches, authors such as William Ross Ashby demonstrated certain relationships between information theory and the control of complex systems. One of the most relevant is what is known as law of requisite variety or the good regulator theorem: every good regulator must be able to handle the complexity of the system under control, expressed by the number of possible situations, having an answer for each of them. Otherwise, the forced reduction of the complexity of the system seriously reduces its responsiveness.

At this point the reader might ask, what does all this have to do with communism? Well, what if this informational analysis of complex systems were applied to economics? Is it possible and fruitful? It is curious to see how in The Human Use of Human Beings Wiener himself made statements such as the following:

I am writing this book primarily for the Americans in the American environment. In this environment, questions of information will be evaluated according to the standard American criterion of evaluation: a thing is valuable as a commodity for what it will bring in the open market. . . .The fate of information in the typically American world is to become something with a price which can be bought or sold. . . . It is not my business to cavil whether this mercantile attitude is moral or immoral, crass or subtle. It is my business to show that it leads to the misunderstanding and the mistreatment of information and its associated concepts.

Surprisingly anti-capitalist, right? At least that was what certain sectors of the USSR and the German Democratic Republic began to think after 1955. Wiener considered that mercantile relations mishandle information because they convert discoveries and techno-scientific creations — which are the product of collective effort and end up affecting all of humanity — into private property. This makes them opaque to society and produces an irresponsible management of these resources. Soviet cyberneticians Anatoly Kitov, Sergei Sobolev, and Alexey Lyapunov declared this “a sharp critique of capitalist society” little explored until then.

OGAS, Cybersyn, and Novosibirsk

Once this way was opened, the application of cybernetic analysis for socialist purposes didn’t wait. Markets and capitalist companies began to be explained as defective automatons or control systems.

The Polish economist Oskar Lange, relying on Wiener, developed a new understanding of economic problems. In their polemic with the Austrian School, Friedrich von Hayek and company had tried to criticize their proposal for a “neoclassical socialism” by insinuating that the computers that Lange intended to use to calculate the prices of products without the need for competition between companies were a “digital version of the market” — that the latter, in fact, is an essential “telecommunications system” for industrial societies. Turning this argument around, Lange argued that the market is nothing more than a sui generis computer that solves systems of equations through social interactions, through merely statistical information and trial-and-error dynamics. A statement consistent with the aforementioned developments of Turing: the market, being a “decentralized program,” should be equivalent to one that can be carried out in any universal Turing machine. In this way, if we clearly understand how it works, we can reproduce a feedback mechanism capable of doing the same thing and much more, without all the inconveniences of the conventional “analog market.”

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the British cybernetician Stafford Beer published The Brain of the Firm, which took Ashby’s law of requisite variety to its ultimate consequences, considering that the market economy — by having to restrict the spontaneous generation of needs and social initiatives within the limits of the profitable and by collapsing all the information to reductive monetary variables — forced the social metabolism into cybernetically “clumsy” dynamics whose human consequences are dramatic.

For both, socialist planning clearly outrivaled markets in being able to 1) have transparent access to all economic information, 2) act in immediate reaction to new citizen needs without the mediation of profitability, and 3) have the foresight to make long-term economic calculations.

The most outstanding historical-political concretions of these approaches were: 1) the OGAS of Víktor Glushkov in the USSR, 2) Beer’s Cybersyn in the Chile of the Popular Front, and 3) and the “economic geography” projects that, in light of the works of Leonid Kantorovich and Nikolai Veduta, the Novosibirsk Institute orchestrated. The first two projects are better known. The latter is much less explored but is of interest due to the ecological sensitivity that was developed while urbanizing the Siberian steppe. This legacy has been preserved in Russia by Nikolai’s daughter, Elena Veduta.

1993: Rebirth of an Idea

After the extension of neoliberal dictatorships throughout Latin America and the subsequent dismantling of the USSR, all these projects were aborted. However, unexpectedly, a work appeared in the West in 1993 that, little by little, would revive the interest of small circles in these approaches: Towards a New Socialism, by Scots Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell. This, together with Classical Econophysics, published a decade and a half later together with Gregory John Michaelson, Ian P. Wright, and Victor Yakovenko, rescued all the intuitions of the aforementioned authors, taking them to unprecedented degrees of formalization and refinement. It can be said that these authors founded the current cybercommunism, providing two interesting theoretical weapons to the revolutionary movement: econophysics, as an analysis of market economies, and cybersocialist planning, as a political proposal that aspires to overcome the structural deficiencies of traditional forms of planning.

Starting with the econophysics, the 1983 work Laws of Chaos: A Probabilistic Approach to Political Economy, by Emmanuel Farjoun and Moshe Machover, deserves special attention. This work, reproducing the transition from classical deterministic physics to statistical physics, would explain that the dynamics of political economy are only expressible mathematically through statistics, since the object of study is a fundamentally chaotic system. The mathematical techniques of Marxism would be updated, allowing the development of more precise models capable of capturing all the mercantile complexity. As Lange had hinted, the competitive dynamics by which prices, wages, and the like are set merely play with information of statistical nature.

This task would be furthered in Classical Econophysics, where Marxism would complete its conjugation with cybernetics. Thus, authors such as Wright would explain that capital, as a social relation of production, is, in cybernetic terms, a “control system” that seeks to adapt to our biophysical (but also geopolitical) environment through a certain feedback loop: atomized social units compete among themselves for certain consumer niches to monetize their activity. The law of value and its basic formula, M-C-M’ (a certain agent makes a first monetary investment “M” to buy capital and produce a certain commodity “C” that he expects to be able to sell, a posteriori generating a certain profit, that is, more money than he had at the beginning “M’”), act as a validation standard that filters unprofitable initiatives as “irrational.” Marx’s conceptualization of capital as an “automatic subject” whose “will” is above even the capitalists themselves is not a metaphor. The capitalists, encouraged by the opulence linked to their privileges and frightened by the possibility of being swept away by competition, are but personifying or executing the exit signals of the control system under which they are subsumed.

These output signals supposedly ensure social adaptation to new circumstances by optimizing monetary expenditures around a certain “equilibrium.” In practice, as Farjoun and Machover show, equilibrium is unattainable because the signals are too simplistic to capture the full complexity of the system, thus leading to impulsive and rudimentary investment and retrenchment dynamics. This would not only force the social majority to a certain wage and consumption level, a certain growth rate or, in short, a certain rate of profit, but would also be behind the continuous social instability and periodic crises that we observe nowadays. For this reason, markets are described as defective automatons. They over-complexify the social metabolism by generating parallelisms and opacity, giving rise to information that is sometimes redundant and sometimes directly useless. This translates into overexertion and waste of resources in periods of growth, and underutilization of productive capacities in periods of crisis. Consider that hundreds of companies are launched every day to produce different variants of the same good in quantities that citizens can neither afford nor consume.

But that’s not all. Paradoxically and at the same time, the market ignores and even obstructs the consideration of information of vital importance for our future. In a sense this is so because the market simply “does not detect” as an input signal that which transcends the narrow limits of monetary variables. But the real problem is that, even when these are politically visible, their consideration is in contradiction with the imperative of profitability, so they are neglected. Thus, an infinite number of issues that specialists are quick to point out as crucial (aridification of land, progressive scarcity, chronic stress, etc.) are included in the “negative externalities” drawer, leaving us to the fate of public administrations that, in the medium term, depend as much on corporate profitability as on the companies themselves.

At this point, we can guess what the connection between econophysics and cybersocialist planning is. The former allows us to explain that, compared to the market economy, the latter optimizes or adjusts the use of social information, considerably increasing our ability to adapt. Planning is cybernetically superior quantitatively and qualitatively. By getting rid of redundant information, it does what the market does (optimize costs and distribute work across industries based on demand) faster and more accurately. The possibility, opened up by information and communications technologies, of collecting, storing, and processing huge amounts of information in a viable way allows us to do without the market.

Planning is also clearly different and superior in qualitative terms. As Otto Neurath explained, thanks to calculation in kind and direct democracy, a new type of apprehensive rationality emerges from multidimensional factors, focused on the satisfaction of social needs. We would speak of a control system with the ability to consciously decide what to do and how. Plans are the conscious expression of the popular will at a given time through self-imposed goals and constraints. This can take the form of both expansions and retractions of different productive sectors, depending on what is considered. Why? Because by sweeping the capitalist class off the map and centralizing the means of production, social reproduction no longer depends on a certain employer seeing profit expectations in a sector or on poor monetary games; rather, the different areas of human life (health, consumption, ecology, etc.) would be managed, case by case, based on particular scientific studies and ethical-political considerations expressed in public deliberation.

For this new way of organizing the social metabolism, democracy — something quite different from the representative despotism of bourgeois parliamentarism, prostrated before the power of capital and whose essential task is to guarantee capital’s general conditions of reproduction — is not a rhetorical flourish. Only massive and recurrent popular participation can guarantee a social reproduction that is not turbulent, so long as it is consensual. Likewise, the target record — that is, expressible in a mathematical way — of social needs and, therefore, planning itself, is impossible without a fluid transmission of information from bottom to top.

This is something that, fortunately, has been recognized in our environment by — if we may use the expression — precocious cybercommunists like Felipe Martínez Marzoa: “the integration of all production in a single calculation is only possible through total transparency of the productive apparatus . . . [which] can only be achieved if information and control constitute a fact of general social communication; for it is evident that these conditions can only be fulfilled in a political situation of democracy without restrictions” (as he put it in his 1983 work La Filosofía de El Capital).

Steering the Ship

We hope that with this brief outline it has become a little clearer what we mean by complementing the critique of political economy with modern information and control theories. It is curious that even the etymology of the word seems to suggest something like this to us. “Cybernetics” comes from the Greek verb kybernao, which means “to drive” or “steer” a ship. So, a visual way of explaining our approach would be that the market means leaving the ship (society) to the fate of the winds and tides, while cybernetic planning would allow us to take the wheel and sail wherever we want.

In any case, and as a conclusion, we would like to point out that our ultimate intention is to make the case that any revolutionary political program of the twenty-first century should have among its priorities the promotion of research projects that help to conceptualize the socialization of the means of production and its radically democratic management through the use of available technologies. As such, there is still much to be done, hence the importance of the new theoreticians and work groups. New theorists such as Tomas Härdin, Jan Phillip Dapprich, David Zachariah, Grigory Kopanev, Spyridon Samothrakis, Nicolas D. Villarreal’s forum, etc., are proof of this. We have a long way to go. But the rapid proliferation of this approach in the last five years tells us that its foundations are solid — and its future is promising.