What if the global economy were structured, not to send wealth into the hands of a tiny group of oligarchs, but rather to ensure the best possible lives for everyone, ensuring that people lived fulfilling lives free from want, engaged in activities that interested them and engaged them, enabling them to pursue their own interests alongside working for the common good? What if people worked in co-operatives, coordinated together to meet the needs of society, organized from below rather than from above, with the workers themselves as the beneficiaries of their labor? What if the global economy elevated workers instead of immiserating them?
Stafford Beer devoted his life to answering these questions. A gifted child, he entered University College London at the age of 16, but dropped out to join the army at the start of World War II.
Beer was stationed in India in 1947 at the time of the Partition, and was one of the last British soldiers out. During his time in India, he studied yoga and Tantra, and even saw Gandhi give speeches. He was trained in the British intelligence services that emerged in World War II. He learned operational research, which the war had made prominent, and after leaving India, the military trained him as an army psychologist. He got married and entered the private sector, developing the operational research group for United Steel. He began to write papers in cybernetics, and Norbert Weiner, the founder of the science of cybernetics, invited him to MIT, where he met the neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, who mentored Beer in cybernetics. In Britain, Beer worked with British cyberneticians W. Grey Walter and W. Ross Ashby, and became good friends with Gordon Pask.
The work that Beer and Pask collaborated on sounds fantastic today: they created analog computers built out of chemicals in a dish, and even created an analog computer out of a pond. Pask was creating machines that could teach typing, or foreign languages, and was devising his own theory called Conversation Theory, in which different systems, be they humans, companies, ecosystems, computers, or arrays of machines, could talk to each other.
In 1956, Beer bought one of the first mainframe computers to be used in the private sector in Britain, for United Steel, in order to run modeling simulations for the company. His goal was to figure out a way to run a large corporation on cybernetic principles, especially using what he had learned from McCullough about neuroanatomy. In doing so, he invented management cybernetics. His 1959 book Cybernetics and Management was translated into 13 languages, and established him as a public intellectual.
His work for United Steel improved production by 30%, but he did it by paying workers more, and by working closely with the unions, which caused senior management to bristle. By 1961, he left to start a consulting company, SIGMA, or Science in General Management. Meetings at SIGMA included all staff, including custodial staff. Anyone could speak at meetings. Staff were given sabbaticals as long as they did something unrelated to work. Based on the work that Beer did at SIGMA, and the computer experiments he was working on with Pask, In 1966, Beer wrote the book Decision and Control, which was closely studied by Allende’s economic team in Chile. In it, he described the ways in which a company could use operational research and cybernetics to improve outcomes.
In the late 1960s, Beer had walked away from SIGMA over a contractual dispute, and had taken a role as Development Director at International Publishing Company (IPE), which was one of SIGMA’s clients. He created a company within IPC called International Data Highways, and coined the phrase information highway. He stressed electronic publishing as a focus for the company, but was stonewalled by the board there, and left as a result.
In 1968, there was an art exhibit in London called “Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts”. Both Beer and Pask submitted exhibitions to the exhibit that used cybernetic principles in an artistic context. Beer divorced and remarried, and attracted a circle of artists around him. He exchanged poems with Pablo Neruda, and befriended science fiction writers Judith Merrill, and John Brunner, and met Douglas Adams. Beer enrolled in an arts program sponsored by NASA.
In 1969, Beer felt that the world was on the wrong track, and was headed to destruction because it was stuck in old patterns that no longer worked. He devoted a year to diagnosing the problem and devising a way of changing the system before it was too late. He got a professorship at Manchester University, took on some consulting work, and worked on this personal project in his spare time, which became the book Platform For Change, which he published in 1975.
Beer, invoking Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, felt that providing happiness (εὐδαιμονία) for as many people as possible was the purpose of civilization. Beer used the term eudemony to distinguish the idea from other kinds of happiness. Eudemony, in Beer’s vision, was the result of structuring society so that it offered the people the opportunity to fulfill themselves as their best possible selves. Beer was aware that in order to accomplish this, the material needs of the people would have to be met, but he also wanted to free people from alienation, including alienated labor. Beer understood that society would have to be re-organized in order to liberate people, and he felt that structural change would come from organizational change.
In Platform For Change, Beer wrote:
Money is terribly important, both to those paying and to those paid. But money is nonetheless an epiphenomenon of a system that actually runs on eudemony. It is for this reason that I have come to see money as a constraint on the behaviour of eudemonic systems, rather than to see eudemony as a by-product of monetary systems. My life is certainly about eudemony: is not yours? [Platform For Change, pp. 170-1].
In a sense, eudemony as Beer understands it is the opposite of the Marxist concept of alienation. While alienated labor under capitalism estranges the lives of its workers from themselves, eudemony gives workers their lives back to fulfill their humanity.
HOW CAN SOCIETY ACHIEVE EUDEMONY?
The Chilean economy in 1970 was highly dependent on natural resources owned by foreign interests. Specifically, copper and nitrates. These were mined by US corporations, who took the wealth of the nation out of its own hands and away from Chile. The Chilean government was losing revenue from its own copper industry and the previous administration, under Frei, had already begun the nationalization of this industry. Allende continued the process of nationalization to prevent capital from draining out of the country, and to use the revenue from these nationalized resources to the betterment of Chilean society from the bottom up.
In 1970, the first democratically elected Marxist government in history came to power in Chile, and the most powerful superpower in the world began to mobilize against it. Henry Kissinger told President Nixon to issue sanctions so brutal that they would “make Chile scream”.
The Popular Unity government had Socialists, Communists, and left-Christian Democrats in it, in a minority government, with the famous surgeon turned politician Salvador Allende at its head. Allende had been involved in Chilean politics for decades, and had narrowly lost the national election in 1964. After a center-right government failed to consolidate power, the people of Chile were ready for change.
In Chile, there was an old government organization called CORFO that had been set up as a national merchant bank, and was in charge of state-run industries, such as cement, which did not have a large enough market to work with private investors. This was common in Latin America at the time. Allende and his government never intended to nationalize all of the economy. But Allende expanded CORFO as his vehicle for the administration’s nationalization program. CORFO was negotiating with copper and nitrate companies to buy them out. The US companies were outraged that Chile was factoring its revenue losses into these negotiations, and in retaliation the US State Department began enforcing sanctions against Chile and forbidding its allies from purchasing goods from Chile. Meanwhile, CORFO was compensating these corporations at what they felt were fair prices, and nationalizing these industries.
The Technical General Manager of CORFO appointed by Allende was Fernando Flores. Flores was fascinated with Stafford Beer. Beer’s consulting firm, SIGMA, had worked with the previous Chilean administration, and Flores had become familiar with Beer’s ideas at that time, and had shared the ideas in Beer’s book, Decision and Control, with his team at CORFO.
Flores reached out to Beer for consulting work for the complete reorganization of the public sector of the Chilean economy using cybernetics, invoking Beer’s own scientific views on management and organization. Beer was enthused. Flores came to London to meet with Beer, and persuaded him to visit Chile in November, 1971, at the first anniversary of Allende’s Presidency, to assess the situation. Having finished the rough draft of the first edition of his new book, Brain of the Firm, Beer mailed copies to Flores to distribute among his colleagues. This book, published in 1972, would go on to be his best selling and most influential work. The composer Brian Eno would go on to create a record album based on its ideas, “Another Green World”, in 1975. The second edition of the book, which came out in 1981, was updated with five new chapters covering Beer’s work in Chile.
Beer was highly averse to the impenetrable bureaucracy that he associated with socialism, but when he saw what was happening in Chile, he was pleasantly surprised. A working group had been prepared to receive him, and for eight days, under the leadership of Raul Espejo, began crafting a plan to put the economy of Chile on a cybernetic footing. Everyone on the team had studied the Viable System Model (VSM) that Beer had described in Brain of the Firm, and there was consensus to use it as the model for the Chilean economy. Beer’s plan was to regulate the economy in real time, in a data-driven manner. To Beer, a five-year plan was exceedingly poor management, because data points come up constantly that should force parts of the plan to abort and be rewritten. In order to solve the problems of the transition to socialism, people at every level needed answers quickly. Alacrity was more important than accuracy, provided that through an iterative process made available by real-time information, points of data were constantly being corrected. Beer used the motto “abort often” to stop a bad plan in its tracks and create new plans iteratively as needs arose. The “fail fast, fail often” credo of Agile methodology was present in Beer’s work in Chile.
5 Principles For Good Government
In Chile, Beer worked on a cybernetic vision of what governments in general should be and do, elaborating five principles of eudemonic government, based on the Viable System Model.
The first principle was: “Government is the people’s help”. The working class in Chile regarded the government as incomprehensible, and its intrusions into their lives was burdensome. To correct this, Beer insisted upon a new kind of government apparatus, using technology, with which the people would have tools for thinking about what to do, and then acting together to do these things. This technology would establish the means for the wishes of the people to be communicated to the government on a continuous basis, and for government action to emerge from these wishes.
The second principle was: “To help means helping now.” The working class in Chile experienced the government as a massive bureaucracy filled with endless red tape, resulting in significant delays. To correct this, Beer insisted that government officials be available for immediate contact, and to respond immediately, to provide the fastest possible action. Due to the stresses the government was under, Beer felt that responding quickly, even if not perfectly, was preferable to show the people that the government was at their service. Beer essentially proposed lean solutions a decade before Toyota started doing lean production.
The third principle was: “The road to help has signposts.” The working class of Chile were plagued with bureaucracy and petty officialdom, leading to despair and a lack of answers to their questions. Using cybernetic organization, Beer designed scalable recursive structures so that each government official would deal with a few problems, and an official at the next higher level of hierarchy would deal with a few officials, and so on, all the way up to the President himself. This network would be made explicit and clear, with officials whose only job was to help people and give them answers. This construct minimized paperwork. Beer remarked, “The people cannot eat paper.” [Brain of the Firm, p. 299].
The fourth principle was: “Help is a name and face.” The working class of Chile were being denied by faceless bureaucrats, and government officials treated their needs and desires as unfeasible. Instead, Beer insisted that government officials took direct personal responsibility for the problems presented to them. In Beer’s system, a government official was to say “I will do it, or I know who can.” [Brain of the Firm, p. 301]. Beer felt that, if the third principle were in place, government officials would have the opportunity and the time to get to know the people they were helping.
The fifth principle was: “The future starts today.” The working class of Chile felt like they were managing a perpetual crisis. In the chaos, everyone was busy grabbing whatever they could, leading to the same problems later on that they were experiencing before. Beer encouraged people to think towards the future, with a consciousness about how their children’s children would fare if they worked towards a better society.
In Chile, workers’ councils were formed in workplaces, and were given a great deal of power over how the work would be done, the length of the working day, and suitable compensation for work. The Allende administration, when it came to power, gave workers a 40% raise across the board, and then tied future raises to the cost of living. It was understood that workers needed tools to help them take over the governance of their workplaces, and CORFO provided teams of scientists and academics, called interventors, to assist the workers, teach them design principles, computer programming and operation, and the basics of cybernetics. Industrial designers went into workplaces and, with the assistance of the workers, redesigned these places based on ergonomics, cognitive science, and the suggestions of the workers.
The group under Raul Espejo built a data processing system, which was given the name Project Cybersyn, and a communications system which was called Project Cybernet. In 1971, microcomputers did not exist. IBM mainframes in this period came with at least one IBM employee who understood the proprietary mechanisms of the computer, and consumers of IBM computing were required to hire IBM employees to run them. When Allende was elected, IBM removed all of its non-Chilean employees from the country. So while the project had access to an IBM 360/50 machine, they ended up moving to a Burroughs B3500, which was a small mainframe computer with 500K of memory, and a processing speed of 1 megahertz, making it less powerful than a single IBM PC from 1983. The Chileans managed to find a warehouse with a few hundred brand-new TELEX machines in it from the old administration, and these were used, along with a microwave network that had been set up to track satellites) to send data from the local factories, plants, and management offices to the Burroughs machine in Santiago. [Brain of the Firm, p.252]
Project Cybernet ended up being a communications network that spanned the entire length of Chile, connecting every state-run factory in the country. While the Cybersyn team had wanted to put a minicomputer in every factory, that option was not available to them because IBM had pulled its employees out of Chile, and the US sanctions prevented Chile from purchasing computers. The goal was to give the workers’ committees in every factory their own computer access to use as the committee saw fit, as long as crucial indices of performance were transmitted to Project Cybersyn to be processed and examined in real time. Beer is sometimes accused of having creating an authoritarian computer domination system that imposed tyranny on the working people of Chile. Not only would that not have been possible given the paltry computer processing power available, but in fact, the opposite was the case. Project Cybersyn received about a dozen data indices from each factory each day. The factory workers’ committee could add whatever indices it wanted in addition to these, and was not required to tell anyone outside the workers’ committee what those indices measured.
Just like in other newly Socialist countries, the managers of the old factories, often foreigners, had not trained the workers in the factories how to manage themselves, and when Unidad Popular came to power, most of the foreigners left, taking their records, order books, and data with them. Some of the Chilean managers were conservative, and were very reluctant to submit to workers’ control. The government had a team of interventors, mostly from academia, who joined the workers’ committees to help the committees figure out how to take control of the factories. A team of world-renowned design specialists, headed by Gui Bonisepe, designed diagrams and flowcharts that would make the process of learning easier, incorporating ergonomics and cognitive science so that workers could adopt to these processes as rapidly as possible.
In his initial visit to Chile, Beer spent an hour in President Allende’s office explaining the Viable System Model to him. Allende had been a surgeon and a pathologist, and he immediately understood Beer’s metaphors for the subsystems in the VSM invoking ideas from neuroanatomy. Beer suggested that the Chilean government could be conceived of as a viable system, and began to explain the details. When Beer got to explaining the part of the VSM that controls the ethos of the organization, he pointed to that part of the diagram, and was about to say that this was Allende himself, but Allende interrupted him and said “at last, el pueblo [the people]!”
That winter, Beer helped design the research and development portion of the whole endeavor, which was called Project Checo (CHilean ECOnomy), which looked at the old data figures and created a model of the Chilean economy. These figures were highly untrustworthy because they were out of date, and had been created by agencies with some political corruption, but the plan was for Cybersyn to continually feed it better data and to use Cyberstride to help these models improve over time. Checo had a plan to build a control room where a group of people could see data coming in in real time, and respond to it using buttons and knobs on the armrests of the chairs. Gui Bonisepe was involved in their design, and while everyone involved insisted that they were not basing their design on Star Trek, the finished product looked a lot like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
The purpose of Cybersyn was to lead from below. Local autonomy had to be maximized, and all information coming from Cybersyn had to be appropriate to its own level of operation. Each level of operation would be supplied with its own Cybersyn package. If a given setup at any level of recursion were in trouble, it would try to get itself out of its predicament. But if it could not fix its issues in a reasonable amount of time, it would send a signal to the next higher level of operation, and that system, alerted by the signal, would work on the problem. In theory, a signal could reach all the way to a cabinet minister or the President, but for that to happen, every level of operation between the given system and the top would have had to fail. If everything were going right, nobody outside the system in question would be alerted. In a well-functioning system, signal channels would be mostly silent. In this way, local autonomy would be maximized.
In October, 1972, an unusual strike took place. In Chile, much of small industry was controlled by companies organized by groups of owners, called gremios. This strike is often depicted as a trade union action, but the gremios were distinct from trade unions, being more like guilds of proprietors. Beer, invoking Engels, regarded them from a class analysis as petit-bourgeois elements rather than proletarian elements. [Brain of the Firm, p. 312]. Trucking companies, retailers, shop owners, and distribution centers launched a massive strike to protest the nationalization of their industries. The goal was to force the government out of power by shutting down its ability to function. It was a deliberately counter-revolutionary action designed to take down the Allende administration.
Beer and Flores entered into a state of emergency, and used Project Cybernet to control distribution for the whole country. Within 24 hours, Cybernet was used to relay messages across the country. Data flowed in real time, so that instant decision-making was possible in both regional and national control centers. The logistics networks in Chile were highly redundant, so a blockage by the gremios could be rapidly rerouted provided that the data was available. Cybernet was not designed for this sort of crisis activity, but had been built so well that it was easily repurposed to handle the emergency. Beer’s Viable System Model itself thrives on having multiply redundant information channels. The crisis was averted.
Allende was convinced that, had the gremio strike succeeded, it would have brought down the government. But Cybernet was able to respond to and break the gremio strike. This proved very impressive to those in the Allende administration who up until then had been skeptical of Beer’s projects. This was a double-edged sword. It led not only to unrealistic expectations for Beer’s cybernetics, but caused many administrators in the government to focus on the pyrotechnics and not the systems thinking of these projects.
The success of Cybernet in breaking the gremio strike also gave the opposition a target. Conservatives misrepresented Cybernet in the mass media that they dominated as an oppressive Big Brother control system that was curtailing individual liberty.
By the winter of 1973, the political situation in Chile had badly deteriorated due to foreign pressure. Beer began to receive death threats, and had to go into hiding in the tiny coastal village of Las Cruces. There were attempted assassinations and coups of Allende. In August, there was a second gremio strike that reduced the trucking fleet down to between 10% and 30% of normal, requiring Beer and Espejo to invent just-in-time logistics on the fly using Cybernet, years before Taiichi Ohno published the Toyota Production System lauded by modern capitalism. The strike was broken, but the government was battered in its effort to break it, due to the influx of foreign money used to support and lengthen the strike.
Beer understood that the USA could exert more pressure on Chile than the Allende administration could withstand. While Cuba had the USSR as a powerful Socialist ally, Chile did not. Mass media in the USA and UK depicted Cybernet as a tool of oppression, and Beer could not counter this image despite his efforts. He later sought to understand why he was unable to turn the massive apparatus of global mass media away from its false narrative.
Beer concluded that the whole Chile project would not succeed, but stayed on anyway, exerting himself to the utmost, out of a sense of loyalty to the others on the project, and out of a commitment to take the project as far as it could go.
At this time, Beer began to receive secret overtures from the opposition in Chile about how they could take over Project Cybersyn after the Allende regime fell, but they insisted on removing the workers’ controls from the system, which was impossible.
On September 11th, 1973, Beer was in London, making an appeal to purchase Chilean exports. After the meeting, Beer received the news that Allende had been assassinated. Beer did not return to Chile after the coup, but spent years working with Amnesty International helping his Chilean team members escape to safety, finding them academic positions in Britain and Canada.
After the coup, Beer dramatically changed his lifestyle. He gave away many of his possessions, and moved to a small cottage in Wales. He refused to work with any country on Amnesty International’s list of countries that sponsor torture. He held an academic post in Manchester, and did consulting work in Toronto, but spent much of his time writing the second edition of Brain of the Firm, along with many papers and poetry in his little cottage in Wales, and teaching tantric yoga.
The Viable System Model
After putting its principles to test in Chile, Beer continued to refine the Viable System Model for the rest of his life, and it is still used today. Its ideas run through every project that Beer worked on after his time in Chile. In 1970, Beer spent a year analyzing the structure of governments and the global economy to see what needed to be re-organized in order to stave off what he felt was an impending disaster due to inferior organizational principles that lacked cybernetic integrity. The result of that year’s work was published in 1975 as the book Platform For Change.
Platform For Change is a very complex book, written at several different levels at once. The book is an anthology of articles which were published in 1970 and 1971, with the exception of the epilogue, “Fanfare for Effective Freedom: Cybernetic Praxis in Government”, from a lecture given in 1973 about Chile. In the first edition of the book, Beer used pages of different colors to provide different kinds of commentaries on the articles at different cybernetic levels.
According to John Li, who wrote the postscript for the second edition of Platform for Change, “the purpose of Platform is to introduce eudemony into our vocabulary, as a unit of measure which is a metalanguage into our vocabulary, as a unit of measure which is a metalanguage to the metric of money, which is a constraint.” [Platform for Change, p. 465]. In the final article in the book, “Fanfare for Effective Freedom”, Beer ties eudemony to the Viable System Model (VSM).
The Viable System Model is a way of looking at a social organization in terms of how it is structured to fulfill its function, continue to generate itself, and interact with its environment. It is designed to maximize local autonomy as best to deliver the highest amount of eudemony for its participants, subject to the constraints of revenue and environmental factors. Beer uses a recursive diagram, which allows each level of recursion to use the same diagram. The diagram consists of a number of viable systems at a lower level of recursion, yoked together for a common purpose, along with a metasystem for governing these viable systems. The metasystem is divided into what Beer calls “inside and now” and “outside and then”, the former being the operational aspects of the system, and the latter being the future evolution of the system within the environment it is operating in.
The VSM balances the “inside and now” subsystem with the “outside and then” subsystem so that these two subsystems are constantly sharing information with each other. Without an eye towards future evolution, the “inside and now” subsystem lacks the intelligence needed to plan accordingly, and without a firm understanding of what is happening to the whole system, informed by the most current possible data, any plans for the future would be misconceived.
The VSM is not a simple concept, and the terminology can be confusing to new readers. Beer ended up writing three whole books on the VSM: Brain of the Firm (1972, 1981), The Heart of Enterprise(1979), and Diagnosing the System: For Organizations (1985). In speaking with experts in the VSM, consultants who use the VSM as a schematic for their work with corporations, governments, and non-profit organizations, there was a consensus that a bare-bones explanation of the VSM would take 17-20 minutes to explain to new users. That makes a detailed explanation of the VSM beyond the scope of this article. But it is central to all of Beer’s work, and the most valuable tool of analysis that Beer has left us. I have included a link to a bare-bones explanation of the VSM in the bibliography, one designed specifically for use with co-operatives seeking to avoid hierarchical management. It is worth diving into for those interested in developing and managing effective systems.
The diagram that goes with the Viable System Model is recursive. It has a collection of viable systems included in its system, and it is designed to be a component of a viable system happening on a larger scale. For example, human beings are viable systems, and so is a shop floor of a factory, and so is the factory, so the VSM diagram for the shop floor of the factory will have individual human beings as components of its system, and the diagram itself will be a component of the VSM diagram for the factory. In each case, the viable systems as components of the system being examined are meant to be as autonomous as possible without conflicting with each other. So if two workers get into an argument that disrupts the work on the shop floor, it becomes a problem for the whole shop floor. The workers, in Beer’s setup, are mostly autonomous, and Beer provides metrics to measure how autonomous they are, but if they are completely autonomous, they might end up duplicating efforts, or exhausting all of the materials needed on the shop floor, or disrupt the working of the whole system in some way.
The workers, in their working roles, are the system at the shop floor level, but they need a metasystem to allow them to cohere. The first part of this metasystem should provide a means for the autonomous workers to work together in a way that minimizes conflict but still stays on task. Ideally, this part of the metasystem should be designed by the workers themselves, and adhered to by the workers themselves. But at some level, there needs to be an operational center that takes in data about all the work being done, and can act upon this data. If the whole system gets out of whack, this operational center can dictate to the individual workers, but it is designed to only do this in the case where the disruption is causing pain to the whole system. This cycle, which begins and ends with the individual worker, is the “inside and now” of the system. Note that an individual worker, in the course of their work, is engaged in the part of the metasystem that coheres the different workers, sometimes stepping into the role of an agent of cohesion, and is also part of the control center, fulfilling a leadership role, going so far as to meet with other workers to get them to realign with shared purposes. So the different parts of the system are roles, not people. Any worker could fulfill each role at different times. Beer’s vision was similar to Lenin’s credo, “any cook can govern”.
The operations center is also connected to higher levels of management on the shop floor that involve research and development, fiscal planning, market research, and other aspects that require a future perspective. And at the top of the diagram is the purpose-driven aspect of the shop floor that deals with ethos, mission, and other values-based factors. This cycle, going from ops to planning to central management and back, is the “outside and then” of the system. Again, an individual worker might, in the course of their work, fulfill all of these roles as well. And the operations center is where “inside and now” is balanced with “outside and then”. Beer felt like it was the role of central management to keep these two parts perfectly balanced and aligned, and if everything were running smoothly, then central management should be quiet and let the various systems in play run the shop floor.
Beer noticed that, when doing this analysis for actual organizations, the two blind spots tended to be the subsystem that helps component viable systems to cohere, and the subsystem that engages in future perspective. Many organizations lack one or both of these subsystems. When the former is missing, the operations center must interfere more often and in a more authoritarian manner in the day-to-day work of the worker. When the latter is missing, the whole system has no purpose other than to continue doing what it is already doing, blind to its potentialities. As a result, too many organizations are needlessly authoritarian, with arbitrary rules that serve no rational purpose, led by an individual boss separate from the people who are actually doing the work that fulfills the purpose of the organization.
The book Brain of the Firm introduces the Viable System Model, and its central examples and metaphors come from neuroanatomy. In The Heart of Enterprise, the focus is more business-oriented. In it, Beer writes out the axioms and theorems and principles of the Viable System Model. This book is addressed, somewhat satirically, at the typical English businessman of the 1970s, with the result that some of the humor comes across as sexist and dated to a modern reader. Each chapter ends with a group of English businessmen meeting in a bar to discuss that chapter with a fair amount of grousing and skepticism. The humor gets more odd as the book progresses, ending in a schematic diagram of the cybernetics of the structure of the book, and a review of the book by an imaginary book reviewer. What is most valuable about The Heart of Enterprise is a series of extensively detailed case studies of actual organizations that Beer analyzed using the VSM.
The book Diagnosing the System: For Organizations is the briefest of the three books. Beer was invited to Concordia University in Montreal in 1982 to teach a course on the VSM. The students each chose an organization to analyze, and Beer guided them through the process of creating a detailed analysis based on the VSM. The lecture notes and homework assignments were compiled into the book. All of the axioms and theorems of The Heart of the Entreprise are repeated in this book, and each chapter has a glossary of terms.
By this time, Beer had helped his Chilean colleague Raul Espejo find a teaching position in Britain, and Espejo continues to work with the VSM to this day. Wolfgang Lassl in Austria has a three-volume work on the VSM, The Viability of Organizations, which he uses in his consulting work. At the Metaphorum 2019 conference in Amsterdam, I spoke to them, and to other consultants using the VSM, and it was noted that the VSM is often too complex an idea to share with clients, but that the analyst can use the VSM to do the analysis without having to teach the VSM to the client. In this sense, it works as a ‘secret sauce’ that an analyst can use to reveal valuable insights about an organization.
In 1985, Beer was approached by Jon Walker, who was working at a workers’ co-operative that was having problems balancing autonomy and growth. Beer worked with Walker to do a VSM analysis, and Walker expanded it into an introduction to the VSM in general, emphasizing its usefulness for flat organizations like co-ops. The VSM Guide is now in its third edition, and is available online for free (https://esrad.org.uk/resources/vsmg_3/). It is probably the simplest comprehensive introduction to the subject.
From the preface to The VSM Guide:
In this climate I wrote to a man called Stafford Beer who had created the Viable Systems Model, and began to apply his ideas to co-operatives. In my initial discussions with Beer, I was looking for the answer to two questions:
Was the Viable Systems Model an appropriate vehicle for looking at problems in co-operatives?
Did the Viable Systems Model at any point require the use of authority and obedience?
Beer was completely clear on both these issues: Yes, the VSM was powerful enough to deal with the kind of problem I was looking at, and No, the VSM did not require hierarchical management techniques in any shape or form.
In fact, Beer himself felt that while the use of managerial authority appeared to be an easy way of dealing with organisational problems in the short term, it is really a very crude solution, and that the most appropriate way to create an efficient business is to give everyone as much autonomy as possible.
The Viable System Model is well-suited to structuring left organizations as a way to maximize local autonomy without falling victim to the tyranny of structurelessness. The VSM Guide is an accessible place to start learning about the VSM.
Beer remained concerned with non-hierarchical organizing, and developed techniques for consensus-building, to provide tools for organizations to be more democratic and less authoritarian.
In his work in Chile, Beer was commissioned by President Allende to translate the Marxist ideology of Unidad Popular into the language of cybernetics. The book that Beer wrote in response, Status Quo, remains unpublished. But inspired by that work, Beer sought out a way to organize people in radically non-hierarchical ways to solve problems. In 1990, Beer was studying R. Buckminster Fuller’s concept of tensegrity, or tensional integrity, where a distributed structure held together by tensile forces and isolated components of compression. Based on the principles of tensegrity, Beer created a structure for holding a conference to formulate consensus based on the icosahedron, or 20-sided die, from geometry. The 12 corners of the icosahedron all lie on a sphere, and are thus equidistant from the center. The icosahedron consists of 30 edges, and Beer’s idea was that each participant in the conference would be represented by a unique edge of the icosahedron, connecting two corners.
Once there were twelve topics, each topic would be assigned one corner of the icosahedron, and each person would be assigned two topics, so that each person was assigned one edge of the icosahedron. At the same time, each person would be assigned two other topics of which they would be a critic. Once all of the topics and critics were assigned, the main conference would begin. Each topic would have five members and five critics.
In each session, two topics that were antipodal (on opposite sides of the icosahedron, or poles of the sphere formed by the corners) would be set at two tables set aside, preferably in two different rooms. At each topic table would be the people assigned that topic, the people assigned as a critic to that topic, and at least one moderator. The people assigned to the topic would discuss it for 30 minutes, then the critics would critique the discussion for 10 minutes, and then, with the help of the moderator, the members would draft a statement. Then two more topics that were antipodal would meet, and so on, until all twelve topics had been discussed. At any given moment, there would be 20 people involved in a discussion, and 10 people free to move around and observe, or to rest.
Once all twelve topics had been discussed, the cycle would begin again, until all twelve topics had met twice, and then the cycle would begin again, until all twelve topics had met three times. Then each topic would draft a final statement, and the twelve statements would be brought before the whole group for final approval. These twelve statements would be the output of the conference, a draft of ideas that had reverberated around the icosahedron many times.
The beauty of this structure is that, if it were a corporate event, the CEO and a rank-and-file employee would have equal power during the conference. No participant is given a platform more privileged than any other. Because one’s other topic-mates were all members of a second, different topic group, no two the same, one’s ideas could reverberate away from the group into other groups, even those the original participant might not attend or observe. After three iterations, these ideas would be thoroughly mixed around the icosahedron, pushing the group into a deliberative consensus.
Beer called this structure Team Syntegrity, and one such conference a syntegration. This structure has been used in political organizing, in corporate management, and in 1994, there was a World Syntegration, where syntegrations were held in 30 different cities around the world, and one representative of each syntegration came together in a capstone syntegration, bringing the ideas from their syntegration with them.
Currently, two different corporate consulting firms claim Team Syntegration as their intellectual property, Malik Management in Switzerland, and Syntegrity in Canada and the USA. Syntegrity lists Pfizer, Roche, Merck and FedEx as clients on their website.
Outside of these companies, other people are using this method to solve impasses in their organizations. Participants have described it as a nearly psychedelic experience, many regarding the experience as deeply profound. Beer wrote a book in 1994 about the development of this style of conferencing, Beyond Dispute: The Invention of Team Syntegrity. Beer’s idea was that a company could make a policy that if thirty people at the company demanded to hold a syntegration, it would happen on the clock, and the company would have employees who were trained to moderate these syntegration available to help. It takes about 3-5 full days at 7+ hours a day, to hold a syntegration. Corporate clients continue to bring in consultants to do syntegrations, or a series of syntegrations, when there are problems at the organization that require a consensus solution. The consultants I spoke to in Amsterdam told me about serious problems that put a company at risk of failure being solved by holding syntegrations.
This structure could be very valuable to left organizations as well, to draft statements of purpose, or to resolve conflicts. There is the challenge of having activists who can take a week off of work to attend, but the results could be transformative.
Stafford Beer died in Toronto in 2002. In 2003, his colleagues founded Metaphorum as an NGO with an open society structure to continue his ideas and find new uses for them. Metaphorum meets annually as a symposium with presentations and conferences. I attended the 2019 meeting of Metaphorum in Amsterdam in November, and met many of Beer’s colleagues, and a whole new generation of students of Stafford Beer. Attendees come from the corporate world, from co-operatives, from government and NGOs, from activism, and from open source technology.
This year’s theme was “CTL-SHIFT-DELETE: Rebooting Society”. There were presentations on anarchism and cybernetics, a social network to link co-operatives, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), a proposal to peer review scientific articles without expensive journals using blockchain, a dramatic restructuring of UK government websites to make information more accessible, and the use of cybernetics to draft a new constitution and hold elections in a developing nation.
Some of the attendees were corporate consultants, designers, and government workers, while others were coming from activism and social entrepreneurship. All shared a fascination with the Viable System Model and other ideas of Beer’s like Team Syntegrity. Many of the attendees had been Beer’s colleagues and students when he was alive. Others became interested in Beer more recently, either from reading Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell’s Towards a New Socialism or Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile, or from listening to the General Intellect Unit podcast.
There is a great deal of enthusiasm for Beer’s ideas on the left. The Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has a Stafford Beer Reading Group. Cosmonaut recently put out an article “Organizing Power: Stealing Fire from the Gods” that mentions Beer’s work in Chile, and the recent book The People’s Republic of Walmart, by Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski has a chapter on Beer’s ideas as potential tools for creating a future socialist economy.
Reading Stafford Beer today is a delight. His books from the 1970s are full of ideas that seem very fresh and relevant today. He predicted agile methodology, just-in-time production, data lakes, machine learning, and the internet. His prose style is funny, eclectic, and deeply profound, and richly interdisciplinary, reflecting the best scientific ideas of his time in a highly original synthesis that makes for very compelling reading. He was passionate about alleviating global inequality, and the responsibility of the wealthier countries to share power and help the world achieve eudemony. His books are filled with neologisms which, while eccentric at first, become valuable terminology in addressing the issues that Beer proposed. Above all, he urged that information technology be used for the people, to empower the people, rather than to make a few people very rich.
In 1974, in the fifth radio lecture in the series Designing Freedom on the CBC, Stafford Beer said: «Every time we hear that a proposal will destroy society as we know it, we should have the courage to say: ‘Thank God; at last.’» [Designing Freedom, p. 33]. Reading Stafford Beer in the present day, the reader might similarly exclaim, “Thank God; at last!”
- Aristotle (c. 340 BCE, 2019), Nicomachean Ethics, tr. Terence Irwin, Hackett Publishing Co.
- Beer, Stafford (1959), Cybernetics and Management, The English Universities Press.
- Beer, Stafford (1966), Decision and Control: The Meaning of Operational Research and Management Cybernetics, John Wiley & Sons.
- Beer, Stafford (1972, 1981), Brain of the Firm, 2nd edition, John Wiley & Sons.
- Beer, Stafford (1974), Designing Freedom, John Wiley & Sons.
- Beer, Stafford (1975), Platform For Change, John Wiley & Sons.
- Beer, Stafford (1979), The Heart of Enterprise, John Wiley & Sons.
- Beer, Stafford (1985), Diagnosing the System: For Organizations, John Wiley & Sons.
- Beer, Stafford (1994), Beyond Dispute: The Invention of Team Syntegrity, John Wiley & Sons.
- Beer, Stafford (2009), Think Before You Think: Social Complexity and Knowledge of Knowing, ed. David Whittaker, foreword by Brian Eno, Wavestone Press.
- Beer, Vanilla and Leonard, Allenna (2019), Stafford Beer: The Father of Management Cybernetics, self-published.
- Cockshott, Paul, and Cottrell, Allin (1993),Towards a New Socialism, Russell Press.
- Davenport, Amelia (2019), “Organizing For Power: Stealing Fire From the Gods”, Cosmonaut (https://cosmonaut.blog/2019/11/19/organizing-for-power-stealing-fire-from-the-gods/).
- Dyer-Witheford, Nick (2015), Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, Pluto Press.
- Espejo, Raul and Harnden, Roger, eds. (1989), The Viable System Model, John Wiley & Sons.
- Espejo, Raul and Reyes, Alfonso (2011), Organizational Systems: Managing Complexity with the Viable System Model, Springer-Verlag.
- Harnden, Roger and Leonard, Allenna (1994), How Many Grapes Went Into the Wine: Stafford Beer on the Art and Science of Holistic Management, John Wiley & Sons.
- Kilkelly, Shane and Thompson, Kyle, General Intellect Unit Podcast (2018, 2019), episodes 18, 19, 26, 31, 38, 40, and 41.
- Lassl, Wolfgang (2019), The Viability of Organizations (3 volumes), Springer-Verlag.
- Marx, Karl (1858), Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, Martin Nicolaus, tr., Penguin.
- Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco (1980), Autopoiesis and Cognition, Riedel.
- Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco (1987, 1992), The Tree of Knowledge, Shambhala.
- McCulloch, Warren S. (1988), Embodiments of Mind, MIT Press.
- Medina, Eden (2014), Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile, MIT Press.
- Pask, Gordon (1975), Conversation, Cognition and Learning: A Cybernetic Theory and Methodology, Elsevier.
- Phillips, Leigh and Rozworski, Michal (2019), The People’s Republic of Walmart, Verso Books.
- Walker, Jon (2018), The VSM Guide, 3rd edition.https://www.esrad.org.uk/resources/ vsmg_3/screen.php?page=home
Source: This article was first published on the Red Wedge Magazine, February 18, Winter Issue, 2020 (http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/online-issue/stafford-beer-eudemony)
[*] Jeremy Gross (email@example.com) is a cybernetic Jewish socialist living north of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He is certified in Platform Cooperativism by the New School for Social Research and Mondragon Unibertsitatea. He is a founding member of the Viable Systems Research Unit (vsru.org), a research group in liberatory socialist cybernetics. He is also a member of Metaphorum, an international NGO dedicated to continuing and expanding the ideas of management cybernetician Stafford Beer. He has an academic background in pure mathematics (algebraic geometry). He is currently interested in non-hierarchical open cooperative workplaces and education.