From Leftypedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Cybernetics is the the science of managing information — receiving, storing, and processing it — in order to use it to control a system.[1] It involves information feedback which takes output data and uses it as the basis for further inputs in a circular manner, thus establishing a system that is responsive to constantly changing environmental variables. Within a socialist context this applies primarily to economic planning, as outlined by authors such as Scottish computer scientist William Paul Cockshott, chief among them. Cockshott's major work on this, co-authored by Allin Cottrell, is Towards a New Socialism, which describes in detail a complex socialist planned economy that is based on cybernetics, drawing influence also from the works of Karl Marx and Project Cybersyn — a Chilean project which pioneered the notion of a cybernetic socialist economy. Besides covering the basics of how such a system would function, Towards a New Socialism also explores the peripheral aspects of such, including how aspects of a socialist society such as direct democracy, foreign trade, and property relations would fit into this system. The book was written in 1993, however this only means the contents of it are much more valuable today, when computers are capable of making calculations faster by a scale of several magnitudes; ever-increasing as computing power develops rapidly.

A digitally planned economy has some prerequisites:

  • plenty of electricity generation
  • reliable power and telecommunications infrastructure in every municipality
  • every single factory, warehouse, store, restaurant, hotel, train station, etc. in the country having point-of-sale systems that are connected to the network

Modern technologies like the 5G network standard and the Internet of Things serve these goals excellently, with their already widespread adoption and affordability giving a reasonable basis for a cybernetic economy to be set up.


Towards a New Socialism points out the failure of the Soviet economy, which though having featured a planned economy had stagnated into demise. Social democracy is brought up a heavily-flawed "fix" of capitalism, which cannot truly and permanently afford social justice for its people, as it is still fundamentally capitalist and is bound foremost to market forces. In socialism, however, there may be established a cybernetic system which would both optimize resource use as well remove much of the managerial class, which has been shown through history to be overly conservative and resistant to change especially where it concerns their employment and otherwise position. A consistent system of payment, in labor vouchers, which through the use of a planned economy would be able to finally afford the elimination of poverty and inequality. This payment system would be made possible by paying workers an amount corresponding to what they have earned, which will be possible as the total labor content of their products can be quickly calculated through computing power. In order to determine the needs of the people, Towards a New Socialism proposes making the system democratic, which further keeps governance out of the hands of officials, which as demonstrated in the Soviet Union, tend to be resistant to the change necessary to keep an economy dynamic and away from stagnation. The book also deals with market socialism, which is seen as subpar to cybernetic planning, largely for having so much reliance on market forces.

In a cybernetic economy, labor time replaces money and prices, as the former deals with the actual, material reality rather than valuations detached from what really exists — an economic plan thus works with the real, tangible inputs that actually are. Much of the infrastructure for this kind of system already exists — every production facility in the present uses computers for ordering and keeping track of components. Computerized spreadsheets are used for calculating costs, and data is already being entered into databases. In many cases, users and suppliers already share these databases in some manner. Companies like Google have developed the technology to send out a multitude of web crawlers across the Internet and to categorize it all on their servers, which may be used in an analogous fashion where companies generate web pages containing information about what is needed to produce individual products, and that information becomes categorized and processed for economic calculation. In a capitalist economy this is prevented by commercial secrecy — companies compete against each other, rather than cooperating with. Given the prevalence of technology all across the world, as is the case in the present, cybernetics can be implemented in any country right away, as the computers that would serve as the backbone to this system don't have to be particularly powerful, and the democratic element can be implemented even with feature phones.[2]

A computerized network would also be able to smoothly facilitate the payment and usage of labor vouchers, which would be done in an electronic manner, and which requires neither the creation nor destruction of actual materials, and which can be done in an instant without having to count and manage individual bills. As computerized systems can also be used to track how much individual workers are producing, they may also be used to give accurate payments corresponding to the amount of labor done, incentivizing workers to use their time more efficiently as well as giving them their adequate compensation.

Cybernetics further allows for the prediction of trends in an economy, ascertaining what products are becoming more or less popular, and thus generating information which may be used to adjust production accordingly in pace with demand.



Many fundamental propositions of economic cybernetics were formulated centuries before their implementation. The notion of an economy as a system is contained in François Quesnay’s Economic Table (1758). It was elaborated and scientifically substantiated in the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.[3]

Historically, socialist countries were embargoed from obtaining Western computing technology, and thus had to largely develop their own, but still did not reach a sufficient level of computing power to make economic planning feasible on a large scale. It was either that, or a group of officials became worried about the feasibility of such a program or were concerned that it would make their jobs obsolete — or they were worried that officials in other departments would be angry over being removed from their positions, which would be replaced through such a system of planning. In the People's Republic of China, Jack Ma, billionaire and member of the Communist Party, proposed something similar to cybernetics in the late 2010s, however that proposal has been squashed down by bourgeois elements[2] — further in line with the CPC's general view that socialism should be held off for a couple decades, therefore relying on markets in the meanwhile — thus, making socialist planning of this sort inapplicable to the economy.

Project Cybersyn

Project Cybersyn was a Chilean project from 1971-1973 that sought to establish a system among the hundreds of firms in the country that would collect real-time data such as production output, energy use and labor levels, which would be transmitted to the control room in Santiago, whose two mainframe computers would provide feedback as to the state of the economy. The program was created by Stafford Beer, a British consultant and the founder of management cybernetics (which he defined as the "the science of effective organisation"). Alongside the information network, Project Cybersyn also featured an economic simulator to model alternative policies. The program wasn't without its weaknesses, however, as Chile was technologically limited, which was made worse by a US boycott, and the system was prone to some delays. Nonetheless, it operated largely as anticipated.

The system was stress-tested in October 1972 when 40,000 truck drivers of the hard-right Confederación Nacional del Transporte went on strike, seeking to wreck the economy and undermine the socialist government by preventing the transport of materials. Through Cybersyn, the government was able to coordinate deliveries by active trucks and evade blockades, and after 24 days the strike was defeated. This was followed by a significant rise in interest in the program by various ministers, and an upgraded version of the system was being prepared for installation on 10 September 1973, however the next day there was a far-right coup by Augusto Pinochet — with the backing of the CIA. The presidential palace was stormed and bombed from the air and Pinochet took power, which left state officials wondering what to do with the project; some urging the regime to maintain the system while others didn't want it to be exploited by the new government. Very soon after, however, Pinochet’s ultra-free-market government, inspired by the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, crudely dismantled the project.[4]


OGAS is an acronym for the full name in Russian which translates to "National Automated System for Computation and Information Processing", and it was a Soviet program which sought to create a nationwide information network — essentially, the Soviet attempt at creating an internet, especially for administrative purposes. The ultimate purpose of this was to optimize planning, allowing the socialist economy that was in place in the Soviet Union to continue developing after its basic necessities were established. The project began in 1962 under the leadership of Viktor Glushkov, director of the Institute of Cybernetics in Kiev. As part of his plan he even sought to abolish physical currency, having the economy rely on electronic payments instead; an idea which evoked the notion of progress towards the Marxist ideal of a moneyless society. Glushkov was, however, advised to drop this "controversial" aspect and it never picked up support from party authorities.[5] In 1970 the program as a whole was denied necessary funding,[6][7] as the program was considered to be too much of a risk, particularly by the rather conservative party officials. To them, this was a fairly costly experiment that had many uncertainties about it; furthermore, they were afraid that if they did implement this program, and that if it worked, they would receive a lot of backlash from the bureaucracy in charge of the state planning, which could develop into a party coup so that they could maintain their comfortable position as state planners.[8]

In 1971, the 24th Communist Party Congress was supposed to have authorized implementation of the plan, but ultimately endorsed only expansion of local information management systems.[9] Later in the 70s there was a project called Academset that was created, which was the beginning of a digital network that had an optic fiber and radio/satellite infrastructure, however only Leningrad had this implemented by the dissolution of the USSR — by 1992, the Soviet computers serving this program were destroyed.

Russian-language lecture on OGAS

Reading material

Cockshott's influences (knowing linear algebra helps):

  • The Best Use of Economic Resources, Leonid Kantorovich
  • Input-Output Economics, Wassily Leontief
  • Introduction to Economic Cybernetics, Oskar R. Lange

External links



  1. Umpleby, Stuart (2008). "Definitions of Cybernetics" (PDF). The Larry Richards Reader 1997–2007. pp. 9–11. I developed this list of definitions/descriptions in 1987-88 and have been distributing it at ASC (American Society for Cybernetics) conferences since 1988. I added a few items to the list over the next two years, and it has remained essentially unchanged since then. My intent was twofold: (1) to demonstrate that one of the distinguishing features of cybernetics might be that it could legitimately have multiple definitions without contradicting itself, and (2) to stimulate dialogue on what the motivations (intentions, desires, etc.) of those who have proposed different definitions might be.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Paul Cockshott Lecture on Modern Socialism with Computers
  3. Economic Cybernetics. (n.d.) The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition. (1970-1979). Retrieved August 23 2020 from
  4. Project Cybersyn: the afterlife of Chile’s socialist internet
  5. Gerovitch. p. 341
  6. Peters, Benjamin (2016). How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet. The MIT Press. ISBN 9780262034180.
  7. Peters, Benjamin (16 October 2016). Dresser, Sam (ed.). "The Soviet InterNyet: How the Soviets invented the internet and why it didn't work" (excerpt from How Not to Network a Nation). Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  8. Gerovitch, Slava title=InterNyet: why the Soviet Union did not build a nationwide computer network (December 2008). History and Technology (PDF). 24 (4): 335-350. doi:10.1080/07341510802044736. ISSN 0734-1512 {{cite journal}}: Missing or empty |title= (help); Missing pipe in: |first= (help); More than one of |pages= and |page= specified (help)
  9. Gerovitch. p. 345