Summer 2012

Cybernetic Revolutionaries

Technology and politics in Allende’s Chile

Eden Medina

Diagram showing how Stafford Beer envisioned the scope of his work in Chile and its connection to the political context. Courtesy Liverpool John Moores University, Learning and Information Services, Special Collections and Archives.

In July 1971, the British cybernetician Stafford Beer received an unexpected letter from Chile. Its contents would dramatically change Beer’s life. The writer was a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores, who was working for the government of newly elected Socialist president Salvador Allende. Flores wrote that he was familiar with Beer’s work in management cybernetics and was “now in a position from which it is possible to implement on a national scale—at which cybernetic thinking becomes a necessity—scientific views on management and organization.”1 Flores asked Beer for advice on how to apply cybernetics to the management of the nationalized sector of the Chilean economy, which was expanding quickly because of Allende’s aggressive nationalization policy.

Less than a year earlier, Allende and his leftist coalition, Popular Unity (UP), had secured the presidency and put Chile on the road toward socialist change. Allende’s victory resulted from the inability of previous Chilean governments to resolve such problems as economic dependency, economic inequality, and social inequality using less drastic means. His platform made the nationalization of major industries a top priority, an effort Allende later referred to as “the first step toward the making of structural changes.”2 The nationalization effort would not only transfer foreign-owned and privately owned industries to the Chilean people, it would also “abolish the pillars propping up that minority that has always condemned our country to underdevelopment,” as Allende referred to the industrial monopolies controlled by a handful of Chilean families.3 The majority of parties in the UP coalition believed that by transforming Chile’s economic base, they would subsequently be able to bring about institutional and ideological change within the nation’s established legal framework, an approach that set Chile’s path to socialism apart from that of other socialist nations, such as Cuba or the Soviet Union.4

Flores worked for the Chilean State Development Corporation, the agency responsible for leading the nationalization effort. Although only twenty-eight when he wrote Beer, he held the third-highest position in the development agency and a leadership role in the Chilean nationalization process. Beer decided he wanted to do more than simply offer advice, and his response to Flores was understandably enthusiastic. “Believe me, I would surrender any of my retainer contracts I now have for the chance of working on this,” Beer wrote. “That is because I believe your country is really going to do it.”5 Four months later, the cybernetician arrived in Chile to serve as a management consultant to the Chilean government.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.