The Cybernetics of Occupy

21 May

I was re-reading a few chapters of Stafford Beer’s The Brain of the Firm the other day and I had what I think amounts to a breakthrough in my research on organisational cybernetics, social media and social movements. I say breakthrough; it wasn’t a brilliant insight by any stretch of the imagination but it did give me a solution to a problem I’d been concerned with for a while.

I first discovered organisational cybernetics and the work of Stafford Beer, in reading the anarchist writer Colin Ward‘s 1966 essay ‘Anarchism as a Theory of Organization’. There, Ward follows a discussion of the possibility of non-authoritarian forms of organisation by commenting that ‘Cybernetic theory with its emphasis on self-organising systems, and speculation about the ultimate social effects of automation, leads in a similar revolutionary direction.’ When I got round to reading some of the work on organisational cybernetics, and in particular that of Stafford Beer, I saw just how true this was.

Organisational Cybernetics offers a model of a viable and efficient organisation, or system to use the parlance, which is based on granting a certain level of autonomy to the operational units of that organisation. Beer’s work, written as it was in the 1950s and 60s, focuses on industrial production, and he shows that in organisations where different units, i.e. those concerned with producing separate components or those involved in different tasks like sales and manufacture, have the autonomy to work according to their own directives – based on their unique knowledge of what is required within their niches – a level of internal stability and effectiveness is reached which is difficult if not impossible in organisations where a strict, top-down hierarchy permeates the every action of the workers at the bottom of the chain of command. He basically opposes Taylorist scientific management with a call for granting autonomy to the individual parts of an organisation. To be sure, the autonomy is limited within the overall plan of the organisation, which is decided at a senior management level, but the role of autonomy, and the potential Beer’s Viable Systems Model holds for genuinely democratic and anarchist organisation, is nonetheless fascinating (John Duda presents a brilliant analysis of the history of cybernetics and anarchism in an article published last year in the journal Anarchist Studies).

My inclination at the time was that this model of organisation could be used to explain how the uprisings of 2011 (e.g. the Arab Spring, the Indignados, Occupy, the UK riots) were able to function as viable organisations: that is, as efficient and often highly successful systems within their particular environment and with their particular aims. I felt that this to be the case, and a lot of the facts and experiences of participants in these uprisings matched this understanding of effective organisation: a centralised command structure was lacking from these uprisings and within an often very loose strategic paradigm activists were able to act as they saw best, normally within working groups focused on specific issues or tasks. Despite this I had difficulty linking up detailed accounts of how these uprisings were organised with Beer’s organisational cybernetic model. This was until last week.

In re-reading The Brain of the Firm, and specifically the chapters on autonomy, it all came together. Taking Occupy as an example, I quickly sketched out an account of the organisation of a typical camp based on Beer’s diagrams of an organisational cybernetic system.

The Cybernetics of Occupy

The Cybernetics of Occupy

The Viable Systems Model is composed of five layers or systems. In addition to these five layers there are the operating units of the organisation (in the case of the Occupy example, working groups) and the environments in which the operate, some overlapping and others not, as well as the whole environment in which the organisation or system exists. The overall goal of organisational cybernetics is to show how an organisation can achieve its aims while remaining internally stable.

Systems 1

The blocks labelled 1A, 1B, etc. represent the members of working groups in communication with one another. While in Beer’s account of the firm these are middle managers or foremen who both formally and informally shout across the void, as he puts it, in this modelling of the typical or ideal Occupy camp these can be any member of a working in communication with any other. There aren’t any specific roles at this level of the organisation. The importance of this level of communication is basically to make working groups aware of what the others are doing, so that autonomous activities can be coordinated in an informal way.

Systems 1 and working groups

Systems 1 and working groups

System 2

System 2 in the diagram envelopes systems 1 within it. This is to represent the formal space in which the communications between working groups take place. It could be either the physical space of the camp itself or the online spaces created on various social networking platforms.

System 2

System 2

System 3

The third level of the model aims to allow members of the organisation to reflect on the activities of the working groups in relation to the overall strategy of the organisation as a whole. Discussions at this level would take place during the General Assemblies that came to symbolise Occupy’s decision making structure for many. This allows the members of the working groups to consider their activities and adjust them if necessary in line with the decided-upon goals of the organisation. For Occupy this is crucial as at this level the people engaging in the discussions are not separate or distinct from those involved in the working groups. The same individuals step out of their role as working group members and into that of reflecting on their practice within working groups. This is an essential distinction in the anarchist form of viable system developed here: there is a hierarchy in terms of role but not in terms of structure and it is not a hierarchy that issues commands from one group to another group. Rather, decisions are made democratically by all members of the organisation which do impose limits on their autonomy but limits that are agreed upon together. John McEwan, in an article on anarchism and cybernetics published in 1963 in the journal Anarchy, identified this as a functional hierarchy.

System 3

System 3

System 4

System 4 involves the same individuals again, and also at the General Assemblies, reflecting on the activities of the working groups and the organisation as a whole as well as its overall strategy in relation to events in the outside world. System 4 has a view to the tactical activities of lower levels in the model, strategic decisions made at the higher fifth level and the external environment in which the organisation exists. This allows for adjustments to both tactics and strategy in light of changes in the environment that individual working groups might not be aware of. Again, for Occupy the distinction is functional and the activities of System 4 would involve all members of the organisation discussing together at General Assemblies.

System 4 and external environment

System 4 and external environment

System 5

The final level of the model of Occupy I’m presenting here is that which is concerned with the strategy and overall goals of the organisation as a whole. This is again a level of discussion and decision making that is, or should be, open to all in the organisation. It is where decisions are made about the objectives and priorities of the organisation and is ultimately what limits the autonomy of the working groups; but again, this is not a limitation coming from a distinct group of leaders but is something that is agreed upon democratically by all members of the organisation.


System 5

System 5

In addition to these five levels within this ideal model of the Occupy camp, there are of course the flows of information that are represented by the lines with arrows. These highlight how information flows through the organisation, between the different functional levels and to and from the external environment.

What this representation of Occupy as a viable organisational cybernetic system allows is not only an understanding of how things went well for the 2011 uprisings and similar experiences that, in one way or another, adopted a broadly anarchist form of organisation, but also crucially where and why things went wrong. Mark Bray, for example, in a recent article on the failures of Occupy identifies the divergent strategies between liberals and radicals in terms of the role of the individual within the collective. According to the model presented here this comes down to a difference in strategy at System 5 which in turn provides differing messages to working groups in terms of the limits to their autonomy and their role in the organisation. Without a clearly agreed upon strategy individuals and groups operate along different lines and in often conflicting and mutually-detrimental ways. Agreement at System 5 allows for a clear paradigm in which to work and creates a clear objective for the organisation and gives working groups the strategic perspective they need in order to effectively work autonomously within their own niches.

While using Stafford Beer’s organisational cybernetics to explain the successes and failures of Occupy undoubtedly misses a lot out of the analysis, its focus on levels of action and decision making as well as on the lines of communication and flows of information can, I believe, help in understanding some of what was going on at an organisational level. The modifications to the model to account for the radical democratic processes put to work in Occupy and other uprisings are important in providing for a greater understanding of non-hierarchical organisation and the role of autonomy and functional hierarchy within them.


One Response to “The Cybernetics of Occupy”


  1. Criteria for an Activist Social Media Platform | Social Media and Radical Politics - June 10, 2014

    […] Page 4 of our pamphlet, based on Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model ( […]

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