In this long read, the first of a two-part series, Thomas Swann considers the roots of a concept that offers much more than just a tech buzzword and in fact is often misunderstood in its historic context of autonomous units, striving towards a common goal. The second part will examine case studies both historic and modern to assess how cybernetics can inform anarchist organising methods.
Anarchy, freedom and self-organisation.
In comparison to how overused it is, âcyberneticsâ might be one of the least understood words in the English language. Weâre all familiar with it, or at least with the prefix âcyberâ that is drawn from it. Cyborgs are now ubiquitous in pop culture. We used to talk about cyberspace and cyberpunk, and these came with some kind of radical ethos, albeit a fairly vague one.
Now we get patronising campaigns from the government urging us to give up artistic endeavours for careers in âcyberâ. In our places of work, cybersecurity is the subject of one of the many mandatory trainings we have to complete. Cyberpunk 2077 was one of the most hotly anticipated games of the last few years, and was widely criticised for its simplistic gender normativity, its fetishsing of trans people and its superficial appropriation of anti-capitalist and anarchist aesthetics. None of this really tells us anything about what cybernetics might mean, other than a general association with technology.
In fact, cybernetics doesnât necessarily have anything to do with technology. The scientific discipline of cybernetics, which emerged after the Second World War, was deeply concerned with mechanical and electrical engineering, and later with information technology and computers. But the word itself has a much longer history.
The philosopher Plato, writing in Athens in the fourth century BCE, uses the word âkybernetesâ, which refers to the act of steering a ship. Plato compares steering a ship to governing a city (in Ancient Greece there werenât really nations or states as we understand them, and people lived in city-states, such as Athens). Our word âgovernâ comes from this Ancient Greek word âkybernetesâ. In Latin the k becomes g, the y becomes u, to give us âgubernareâ. This is still used in speaking about matters related to the state Governors in the US: elections for Governor are called âgubernatorial electionsâ.
If cybernetics has its roots in ideas about governing a community â manifest most commonly in hierarchical systems of government â why is any of this interesting for anarchism? Why am I writing about cybernetics in an anarchist publication if, at its core it, deals with the kind of centralised, top-down organisation associated with positions like governor, which of course is also the name given to the people who run prisons? In an excellent recent book on mutual aid and Covid-19, John Preston and Rhiannon Firth link cybernetics to âauthoritarianism and top-down controlâ and to the kind of disaster capitalism that treats people as easily-manipulable and ultimately disposable.
You might be surprised then to learn that in a 1966 essay called âAnarchism as a Theory of Organisationâ, Colin Ward wrote that âCybernetic theory with its emphasis on self-organising systems, speculation about the ultimate social effects of automation, leads in a similar revolutionary directionâ as anarchism.
Why did Ward see cybernetics as comparable to anarchism, to a philosophy based on âautonomous groups, spontaneous order, workersâ control and the federative principleâ?
At the centre of this connection between anarchism and cybernetics is the idea of self-organisation, and while this was initially developed in the context of technical systems, it was applied to social systems as well. Through this, cybernetics gives us a framework for understanding how people can organise their lives collectively and without structural hierarchies of command and control.
Iâm sure Iâm not the only person who has read that comment in Wardâs 1966 essay, which is included without much explanation, only to find themselves down the rabbit hole of anarchism and cybernetics. There are a few other scattered references to cybernetics in anarchist literature over the years. Murray Bookchin used the term in a few places but mainly in reference to high technology. Ruth Kinna discussed it briefly in her 2005 book Anarchism. A Beginnerâs Guide, as did Paul Goodman and Sam Dolgoff decades earlier. In the Netherlands, philosopher Marius de Geus delves into it at length in a book published in 1989 (the relevant chapter was translated and published in English), as did Provo activist Roel van Duijn in his book Message of a Wise Kabouter. It is through Ward, however, that the real relevance of cybernetics to anarchism can be grasped.
As well as being an editor of this very publication from 1947 to 1960, Ward edited the journal Anarchy, which was published by Freedom Press between 1961 and 1970. It is in the pages of Anarchy, in 1963, that the connections between anarchism and cybernetics are first made. One of Wardâs close associates at the time was Nicholas Walter, a frequent contributor to Freedom newspaper. Walterâs grandfather, Karl Walter, attended the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam and had some involvement in the Freedom Group around that time.
The son of Karl Walter, and Nicholas Walterâs father, was William Grey Walter. This member of the Walter family was a neurophysiologist and one of the people working at the cutting edge of cybernetics and related fields from the 1930s to the 1960s. Part of his work was on robotics and he developed some early robots he called âtortoisesâ, which were able to steer themselves using light and contact sensors.
Nicholas Walter said of his father that âhe was politically on the left, a communist fellow-traveller before the Second World War and an anarchist sympathiser after itâ. In 1963, Grey Walter wrote an article for Anarchy titled âThe Development and Significance of Cyberneticsâ (also available at Libcom). Walter gave an overview of the science of cybernetics, characterising it as a holistic umbrella that can bring together disparate fields such as biology, electrical engineering, psychology and mathematics.
Walter concluded his Anarchy article by noting the similarities between how the brain is organised and anarchist approaches to organisation. He wrote that âwe find no boss in the brain, no oligarchic ganglion or glandular Big Brotherâ. He went on to describe how different parts of the brain relate to one another: âlocal minorities can and do control their own means of production and expression in free and equal intercourse with their neighbours. If we must identify biological and political systems our own brains would seem to illustrate the capacity and limitations of an anarcho-syndicalist communityâ.
Walterâs article helps us begin to uncover how cybernetics might be related to anarchism. By stressing the importance of local autonomy, cybernetics shows how systems can be effective and endure from one moment to the next. In social and political systems, it is not through dictatorial command and authoritarian constraint but through freedom and democracy that forms of organisation can best meet their goals and remain stable. While self-organisation in mechanical or electrical systems looks quite different from self-organisation in anarchist groups and communities, Walter suggested that there is a crucial parallel between them: decision-making must happen at the most local level possible and cohesion comes through the interplay between the parts of the system which are themselves fundamentally autonomous.
The elusive mathematician
To see precisely why this is the case, we need to turn to another key moment in this obscure history of anarchism and cybernetics. In response to Walterâs article in Anarchy, the journal published an essay later in 1963 by John D. McEwan.
McEwan is a bit of an elusive figure in this story. He sent a letter to Anarchy following the publication of Walterâs article, and then a few months later his own piece was published. We know from the short biography published alongside his article that he was born in 1938, graduated with a degree in mathematics from the University of St. Andrews, and worked on diagnostic programming for an electronic computer. The letter he sent to the journal was addressed from Manchester, so presumably he lived and worked in that city, perhaps connected to the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Manchester which pioneered some key advances in computing.
Beyond this, nothing is known of McEwan, or at least nothing I have been able to uncover, but the minimal volume of his contribution to anarchism â one letter and one longer essay â is more than made up for by its importance for understanding the connections between anarchism and cybernetics.
In the short letter, published in Anarchy in the issue immediately following the one containing Walterâs article, McEwan wrote: âIâm interested in this question of the cybernetic approach to social organisation, and have for some time considered that itâs particularly significant for anarchists. Especially some concerning self-organising systems, and criticisms of rigid hierarchic decision mechanisms.â Walter responded to say that âI wish I had had time to bring out the antipolitical overtones rather moreâ, but it is McEwanâs later article that develops this theme more fully.
McEwanâs article was titled âAnarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-Organising Systemsâ. In the years that followed, it was republished in two collections and has happily been made available online at Libcom. The article went into some depth on the connections between anarchism and cybernetics, focusing in particular on Kropotkinâs understanding of harmony in nature and how the autonomy of the parts of a system affords it the ability to maintain an equilibrium with changes in its environment. In cybernetics, this is referred to as variety, sometimes also called complexity.
Social systems, like all systems, exist in a particular environment (everything that surrounds them, that has an impact on them and that they in turn have an impact on). This environment changes over time, and to remain stable the system has to be able to continually adapt and modify itself in line with this change. The change in the environment is described as variety: the environment has a variety of possible states and it is the change from one state to another that any system existing within that environment must contend with.
One of the central tenets of cybernetics, known as Ashbyâs Law after Ross Ashby, is that a system must be able to have the same level of variety as its environment in order to survive. When the environment changes from one state to another, the system must be able to change in turn, to match variety in the environment. The way systems realise this variety and adaptability is through their parts having a high level of autonomy to act as they see fit in their own particular part, or niche, of the environment. This is the core characteristic that Walter identified as being common to both cybernetics and anarchism. If systems are too rigid and donât have this capacity for change and variety, they become overwhelmed and break down.
For anarchists, this kind of systemic rigidity and lack of variety of course has another implication: domination. The political and social systems anarchists try to resist, and ultimately destroy, display their lack of variety through authoritarian control. More or less explicit mechanisms of domination â from the overt brutality of the police and military to more subtle cultures of subservience and conformity â act to restrain the variety of the system. Everyone is forced to fit into a limited number of possible roles and behaviours. Freedom and autonomy to act and think differently are curtailed.
In his article in Anarchy, McEwan noted that Kropoktin had an understanding of nature and harmony that aligns strikingly well with cybernetics. He described anarchist society, for example, as one that âlooks for harmony in an ever-changing and fugitive equilibrium between a multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own courseâ.
McEwan challenged the dominant view of political and social organisation, contrasting it with anarchist organisation rooted in autonomy and complexity:
âThe basic premise of the governmentalist â namely, that any society must incorporate some mechanism for overall control â is certainly true, if we use âcontrolâ in the sense of âmaintain a large number of critical variables within limits of tolerationâ. [âŠ] The error of the governmentalist is to think that âincorporate some mechanism for controlâ is always equivalent to âinclude a fixed isolatable control unit to which the rest, i.e. the majority, of the system is subservientâ. This may be an adequate interpretation in the case of a model railway system, but not for a human society. The alternative model is complex, and changing in its search for stability in the face of unpredictable disturbances.â
McEwanâs discussion is particularly insightful and it is one of the few places where cybernetic ideas of self-organisation, variety and autonomy are discussed in detail in relation to anarchism. Central to this is how the concept of control is understood. While cybernetics is focused on control â the subtitle of the very first book on cybernetics, by Norbert Weiner, was Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine â it defines control not as something that is done to a system or a group of people but as something a system or group does itself. For anarchism, this means people self-organising to deal with whatever is happening around them.
McEwan described the kind of high-variety system that cybernetics says is required for coping with a complex world, and it is something many anarchists would recognise: âIts characteristics are changing structure, modifying itself under continual feedback from the environment [âŠ]. Learning and decision-making are distributed throughout the systemâ. He quoted Kropotkin on anarchist organisation, highlighting the startling similarity: âan ever-changing association bearing in itself the elements of its own duration, and taking on the forms which at any moment best correspond to the manifold endeavours of allâ.
Anarchist organisation is still about control, but this control is enacted through the kind of democratic and participatory decision making that has characterised anarchism since its inception and that is found in many non-state communities throughout history. Cybernetics reveals self-organisation as an effective form of control for adaptive systems, but a form of control that, in social organisation, involves us working collectively in agreement with those around us about how we can best run our lives, how we can be free and thrive in a complex and changing world.
Forwarding the thought
McEwanâs article in Anarchy clearly made an impact, as cybernetics crops up again and again in the history of anarchism from the 1960s onwards, but the ideas contained within it were never taken forward and developed into a more comprehensive account of anarchist organisation. McEwan showed us some of the foundational principles behind cybernetics that can be applied just as fruitfully in anarchism, but what this means in practice for anarchist organising is left unexplored.
But what if the story doesnât have to stop here? In his essay, McEwan drew inspiration from two of the most influential figures in cybernetics: Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer. By taking a closer look at these two cyberneticians, and particularly through exploring Beerâs ideas about viable systems, we can delve even deeper into the connections between anarchism and cybernetics.
In doing so, weâre going to visit Chile under Salvador Allendeâs doomed socialist government, where Beer was involved in implementing one of the first networked, computerised information systems, years before the internet would become widely used. Weâll also revisit Occupy Wall Street, to see how one of the largest experiments in anarchistic organisation functioned, before returning home to the present and viewing grassroots mutual aid in the Covid-19 crisis through a cybernetic lens.
By the end of this journey, it will become clear exactly how an almost forgotten idea from the pages of Anarchy in 1963 has the potential to reshape how we think about anarchist organisation.
~ Thomas Swann is a Lecturer in Political Theory at Loughborough University and a member of the Anarchism Research Group. His book, Anarchist Cybernetics. Control and Communication in Radical Politics, was published by Bristol University Press in 2020. You can get 30% off the ebook with the code ACS21 here until April 4. Find out more about the Anarchism Research Group at https://twitter.com/arglboro