Socialist Cybernetics

A stylish dream of economic control fails in Salvador Allende's Chile


Credit: Reason Magazine

In 1973, while the body of socialist President Salvador Allende was still warm, military officers ransacked La Moneda, the Chilean presidential palace. Inside, they found the operations room of what was supposed to be a cutting-edge experiment in computer-assisted economic control, the heart of the controversial CyberSyn project. As one of the junta's first acts under martial law, they destroyed it.

The system, designed by British cybernetician Stafford Beer, was supposed to allow powerful men to make decisions about production, labor, and transport in real time using up-to-the-minute economic information provided directly by workers on the factory floors of dozens of newly nationalized companies. As artist Greg Borenstein and historian Jeremiah Axelrod explained in a paper delivered at the 2009 Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association Conference, the room offered "the illusion of occupying an omniscopic perspective, from which the marketplaces and factories beyond La Moneda's walls were rendered not only visible, but legible." 

In fact, the network that fed the system was little more than a series of jury-rigged Telex machines with human operators, transmitting only the simplest data, which were slapped onto old-style Kodak slides—again, by humans. The controls on the chairs merely allowed the operator to advance to the next slide. Thus Allende's death ended two intertwined Cold War fever dreams of control in Chile: cybernetics and socialism.