Computer-generated image of the Project Cybersyn operations room, photo Rama/CC
Computer-generated image of the Project Cybersyn operations room, photo Rama/CC

Joe Fathallah, Cardiff West Socialist Party

September marks the 50th anniversary of the 1973 coup in Chile led by General Pinochet, which overthrew the democratically elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende, and ushered in 17 years of brutal military dictatorship. On 4 September 1970, Allende was elected Chile’s president as the leader of the Popular Unity (UP) coalition. Allende’s government was headed by the Socialist Party of Chile and the Communist Party.

Allende was elected on a radical platform and set about implementing reforms such as an increase in the minimum wage, a free school meals programme, and redistribution of agricultural land. Following this, the new government embarked on a programme of nationalisation. The US-owned copper industry and a large part of the banking sector were brought into state ownership. By the start of 1972, all the mining companies and 68 other firms had been brought over into the public sector. Huge enthusiasm existed among the Chilean working class for Allende’s government, which had, in a short period of time, overseen a significant increase in living standards.

Allende appointed Fernando Flores as General Technical Manager of CORFO, the government department in charge of the nationalisation programme. Flores, a 28-year-old engineer, was enthusiastic about the potential use of computer technology for planning the nationalised industries.

In mid-1971, he contacted Stafford Beer, a British management consultant who was a pioneer in the field of management cybernetics – the science of processing feedback and utilising information within the context of closed systems. Flores initially asked Beer for advice on incorporating his theories into a potential computerised economic planning system. Beer, enthused by the idea’s potential, abandoned his other consulting work to commit to the project known as Cybersyn in English, or Synco in Spanish – an information support system designed to assist decision making in the nationalised industries, emphasising workers’ control and management on the factory and shop floor. Beer travelled to the Chilean capital Santiago to meet with Allende and convinced him of the value of investing in Cybersyn.

Cybersyn was a significant innovation, as one of the first operational large-scale computer systems outside the military and scientific fields. In some ways, it was a great-grandparent of modern ‘big data’, but using that data in a socially useful way, instead of for capitalist profit interests.

Component parts

The design for Cybersyn consisted of four component parts. Part one was Cybernet. This involved the installation of Telex machines into every state-owned company premises, creating a single near-real-time communication network between these industries and the government. This sounds natural in 2023, but in 1971 was a substantial step forward. This was the first part of the project to become operational, and the only one regularly used by the government before its overthrow in 1973.

Part two was Cyberstride. These were the programs to collect, process and distribute data in a useful format across the network.

Part three was CHECO. This was the most ambitious undertaking and ultimately fell short of seeing the light of day. It was intended to be a real-time model of the Chilean economy, providing data to be able to predict likely future economic perspectives stemming from potential government actions.

Finally, part four was the Opsroom. This futuristic-looking room consisted of seven swivel chairs in a circle, surrounded by screens displaying data collected and aggregated from the shops and factories. One wall was reserved for an unrelated, unfinished project called Cyberfolk, which Beer had designed as a way for Chilean citizens to provide direct feedback to the government on their level of life satisfaction and happiness.

The Opsroom had access to the Telex network to transmit advice and instructions back to the workplaces. It was built, but never used by Allende. Just three days before the coup which put an end to his government and his life, he had given the go-ahead for the Opsroom to be transferred to the presidential palace.

The first planning of an economy under the control of the working class took place in Russia, after the revolution of October 1917 had overthrown capitalism and feudalism, and brought into being the world’s first workers’ state, under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolshevik party. Lenin himself commented that many of the processes of keeping track of stock levels and movements of goods using pen and paper were slow and tedious, and was always on the lookout for potential ways to improve efficiency.

By the second half of the 20th century, the development of information technology offered a possible solution to these problems. Beer was very keen on the idea of delegating control and management to the factory floor, and the original design of Cybersyn had this to the forefront.

However, some within the UP government attempted to use the system as a top-down management tool, resulting in some opposition politicians and newspapers striving to present it as a means for Orwellian-style spying on society.

Truck drivers’ strike

Nevertheless, Cybersyn was put to good use, even in its partially completed form. In October 1972, 40,000 truck drivers took strike action against the government, egged on by the right-wing opposition and, lurking in the shadows behind them, the CIA. This threatened to grind the economy to a standstill. Using Cybersyn, Allende was able to use real-time data to plan and respond to the situation. In direct communication with around 200 truck drivers who remained loyal, the government was able to ensure that essential goods could be moved to the points of greatest need. Cybersyn also assisted the actions of the people’s supply committees, which had been formed in working-class neighbourhoods in response to the economic sabotage of the capitalists, in organising food distribution on the ground. The strike was successfully undermined through the active participation of the working class, aided by Cybersyn.

Following this, the government was also able to use Cybersyn to generate daily reports on national goods production and transportation, and be ready to respond to points of crisis or sabotage. Previously, collating and processing this amount of data would have taken around six months. Imagine what the Bolsheviks and the Russian workers could have achieved using Cybersyn!

In Chile, this was never the case. By the time of his overthrow on 11 September 1973, Allende had nationalised around 40% of the economy. The Chilean capitalist class remained largely in control of the means of production and distribution. Of this state-owned 40%, around 27% was using Cybersyn. Although the installation engineers had received instructions to work with the factory committees, sometimes this was ignored and they treated workers with condescension, meaning that not everyone learned how to use the system properly.

It wasn’t possible to force private-sector companies to use it, or to prevent them from abusing it for their own profit interests if they did. Even more crucially, Allende left control of the state forces in the hands of the capitalist class. After the truckers’ strike, he attempted to pacify the opposition by offering Pinochet a position in his cabinet – literally inviting the wolf into the den!

Computer systems can assist in economic planning, but they are the how and not the what. Ultimately, Project Cybersyn failed because you can’t plan an economy that you don’t own. The socialist revolution still needs to be completed by and with active participation of the working class, with it taking control of the economy and creating its own state institutions. Allende failed to take these processes to their conclusion, and ultimately paid with his own life and those of thousands of his supporters.

A million workers demonstrated in the streets of Santiago demanding weapons to fight the coup – Allende simply told them to go home. Meanwhile on the factory floor, the working class had been taking matters into its own hands. Of the companies nationalised during the first year of the Allende presidency, less than 25% of them were on the list that the UP government had initially marked for transferring into the public sector! In many factories, workers committees had run ahead of the government and taken over running of the workplaces.

Information technology has come a long way in the 50 years since these events! A modern economic planning computer system, operating in the context of a workers’ state with a nationalised, democratically controlled, planned economy, would open up unimaginable possibilities.

There would be the potential for such a system to integrate with hardware such as manufacturing robots and delivery drones, to further streamline economic processes. It could integrate with every aspect of the economy – one of the weaknesses of Project Cybersyn was that it was designed specifically for manufacturing and goods transport, and wasn’t used in the clerical and other sectors. In the last few years, tech workers have started to get organised, joined trade unions, and taken action against the irresponsible actions of the Silicon Valley capitalists. These skills will be vital in the coming period for developing technology, standing on the shoulders of the Cybersyn project, capable of streamlining production processes and helping humanity to reach its full potential on the basis of socialism.