Anarchy 31/Anarchism and the cybernetics of self-organising systems

From Anarchy
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Anarchism and the
cybernetics of self-organising
systems JOHN D. McEWAN

The intention of this article is to suggest that some of the con­cepts used by cyber­neti­cians study­ing evolv­ing self-organ­ising systems may be relev­ant to anarch­ist theory, and that some of the con­clu­sions drawn from this study tend to favour liber­tarian models of social organ­isa­tion. Much of the spe­cific­ally cyber­netic ma­terial is drawn from lectures given by Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer at Salford College of Advanced Technology. They are not, of course, respons­ible for any con­clu­sions drawn, except where expli­citly stated.

  Firstly, what do we mean by a self-organ­ising system? One defini­tion is simply ‘a system in which the order in­creases as time passes’, that is, in which the ratio of the variety ex­hibited to the max­imum possible variety de­creases; variety being a measure of the com­plex­ity of the system as it appears to an ob­server, the uncer­tainty for the ob­server regard­ing its beha­viour. A system with large variety will have a larger number of pos­sible states than one with smaller variety. Thus such a system may start by ex­hibit­ing very varied beha­viour, e.g. a large number of dif­fer­ent re­sponses to a given stim­ulus may appear equally likely, but over a period of time the beha­viour becomes less erratic, more pre­dict­able—fewer and fewer dis­tinct re­sponses to a given stim­ulus are pos­sible (or, better, have a sig­nific­antly high prob­abil­ity.)

  This def­ini­tion is, however, in some ways re­strict­ive. The best such a system can do is to reach some sort of op­timum state and stay there. Also, if we regard the system as a control system at­tempt­ing to main­tain stabil­ity in a fluctu­ating en­viron­ment, the types of dis­turb­ance with which it can deal are limited by the fixed max­imum variety of the system. This point will be dealt with later. The essen­tial thing is that unpre­dict­able dis­turb­ances are liable to prove too much for the system.

  Such con­sidera­tions suggest that it would be more fruit­ful to in­corpor­ate in the defini­tion the idea that the max­imum pos­sible variety might also differ at dif­fer­ent times. Thus Pask re­stricts the term to situa­tions where the history of ‘the system’ can best be repre­sented as a series S₀ S₁ . . . S each term a system with fixed max­imum variety, and each self-organising in the first sense. With this defini­tion we are
able to deal with control systems of the type found in living organ­isms. Indeed, with a few limited excep­tions, bio­logical and social organ­isa­tion are, up to now, the only fields in which such control systems can be found. Some of the excep­tions, in the shape of ar­tifi­cially con­structed systems, despite their crude and ele­ment­ary nature in com­par­ison with living organ­isms, do however exhibit re­mark­ably ad­vanced beha­viour, at least in com­par­ison with con­ven­tional con­trol­lers.

  For an example of self-organ­ising beha­viour in this sense, we may con­sider a human being learn­ing to solve certain types of problem, as his beha­viour appears to an ob­server. Over an inter­val the beha­viour may appear self-organ­ising in the first sense. When, however, the learner adopts a new concept or method, there will be a dis­con­tinu­ity in the de­velop­ment of the beha­viour, after which it will again be self-organ­ising in the first sense, for a time, but now in­corpor­ating new pos­sibil­ities, and so on.

  In many dis­cus­sions of control situa­tions the concept of ‘Hier­archy’ appears very quickly. This may tend to make the anarch­ist recoil, but should not do so, since the usage is a tech­nical one and does not co­in­cide with the use of the term in anarch­ist criti­cisms of polit­ical organ­isa­tion.

  Firstly, the cyber­neti­cian makes a very import­ant dis­tinc­tion between two types of hier­archy, the ana­tom­ical and the func­tional, to use the termin­ology adopted by Pask. The former is the type exem­pli­fied in part by hier­arch­ical social organ­isa­tion in the normal sense (e.g. ‘tree of command’ struc­ture in in­dustry), that is: there are two (if two levels) actual dis­tin­guish­able con­crete entit­ies in­volved. The latter refers to the case where there may be only one entity, but there are two or more levels of in­forma­tion struc­ture opera­ting in the system—as for example in some types of neuron networks. A compar­able concept is Melman’s ‘dis­alien­ated de­cision pro­cedure’.[1] This idea might, I think, be sug­gest­ive to anarch­ists.

  Secondly, even in the case of ‘ana­tom­ical hier­archy’, the term only means that parts of the system can be dis­tin­guished dealing with dif­fer­ent levels of de­cision making and learning, e.g. some parts may deal dir­ectly with the en­viron­ment, while other parts relate to activ­ity of these first parts, or some parts learn about indi­vidual occur­rences, while others learn about se­quences of indi­vidual occur­rences, and others again about classes of se­quences.

  Even in the ana­tom­ical sense, then, the term need have none of the con­nota­tions of coer­cive sanc­tions in a ruler-ruled rela­tion­ship which are common in other usages.

  An im­port­ant phe­nomenon in self-organ­ising systems is inter­action between the in­forma­tion flowing in the system and the struc­ture of the system. In a complex system this leads to Redund­ancy of Poten­tial Com­mand—it is impos­sible to pick out the crit­ical de­cision-making element, since this will change from one time to another, and depend on the in­forma­tion in the system. It will be evident that this implies that the idea of a hier­archy can have only limited ap­plica­tion in such a system.

  I will now attempt to give a brief sketch of a partly arti­ficial self-organ­ising system, in­volv­ing the inter­action be­tween human beings and a machine. This pro­vides ex­amples of the con­cepts intro­duced, and also, I feel, sug­gests import­ant general con­clu­sions about the char­acter­ist­ics of self-organ­ising groups—char­acter­ist­ics which may sound familiar to liber­tari­ans. The machine in ques­tion is a group teach­ing machine de­veloped by Gordon Pask.[2]

  Prior to this Pask had de­veloped indi­vidual teach­ing ma­chines which were import­ant ad­vances in the growth of applied cyber­netics.[3] However, on con­sider­ing the problem of group teach­ing (for skills where some calcul­able measure of the pupils’ per­form­ance, the rate of change of which will serve as a suit­able in­dica­tion of learn­ing, exists), he did not simply combine indi­vidual ma­chines.

  The import­ant insight he had was that a group of human beings, in a learn­ing situ­ation, is itself an evolu­tion­ary system, which sug­gested the idea of the machine as a cata­lyst, modi­fy­ing the com­mun­ica­tion chan­nels in the group, and thus pro­ducing dif­fer­ent group struc­tures.

  In the de­velop­ment of the indi­vidual teach­ing ma­chines, the possi­bil­ity of the pupil domin­ating the ma­chine had already arisen. This Pask now ex­tended by intro­ducing the idea of a quality ‘money’ allo­cated to each member of the group, and used by each of them to ‘buy’ for himself control over the commun­ica­tion struc­ture of the group and over the partial spe­cifica­tion of the solu­tion pro­vided by the machine. Now, in the indi­vidual machine, the degree to which the pupil was helped was coupled to change of his degree of success. If he was becom­ing more success­ful then the help given was de­creased. In the group machine, the allo­cation of ‘money’ is coupled to two condi­tions—in­creas­ing success and in­creas­ing variety in the group struc­ture. This second condi­tion is the key to the novelty of the system.

  The system, then, has chan­ging domin­ance and ex­hibits redund­ancy of poten­tial com­mand.

  In practice, each pupil sits in a little cubicle pro­vided with buttons and indic­ators for com­mun­ica­tion, and a com­puter is used for control, calcul­ating the various meas­ures, etc. The oper­ator is pro­vided with some way of seeing what is going on, and can de­liber­ately make things dif­ficult for the group, by intro­ducing false in­forma­tion into the chan­nels, etc., seeing how the group copes with it.

  The prob­lems which Pask, at the time, had used in these group ex­peri­ments had been form­ulated as con­vey­ing in­forma­tion about the posi­tion of a point in some space, with noise in the com­mun­ica­tion chan­nels. The group had been asked to imagine that they are air traffic con­trol­lers, given co-ordin­ates spe­cify­ing the posi­tion of an air­craft at a certain time, for ex­ample.

  He sug­gests, however, that prob­lems of agree­ing on a choice of policy on a basis of agreed facts is not, in prin­ciple, very dif­fer­ent from the case in which ‘the facts’ are in dispute, and there is no ques­tion of adopt­ing any future policy—except of course the policy to adopt in order to ascer­tain the true facts and com­mun­icate them; this being the problem which the group solves for itself. It is in this sense that
the group may be re­garded as a de­cision maker.

  It will be noted that the state of the system when in equi­lib­rium is the solu­tion to the problem. Also that this solu­tion changes with time. This is also the case in the first example from purely human organ­isa­tion which oc­curred to me—a jazz band (an example also sug­gested by Pask).

  Pask em­phas­ised that he had not then had the op­portun­ity to obtain suffi­cient data to make any far-reach­ing well sub­stanti­ated gen­eral­isa­tions from these ex­peri­ments. The results he had ob­tained, however, were very inter­est­ing and, I think, give con­sider­able insight into the char­acter­istics of self-organ­ising systems, and their ad­vant­ages over other types of de­cision-makers.

  Some groups, after an initial stage while they were gaining famil­iar­ity with the machine, began as­sign­ing specific roles to their mem­bers and intro­ducing stand­ard pro­cedures. This led to a drop in effi­ciency and in­abil­ity to handle new factors intro­duced by spur­ious inform­ation, etc. The learn­ing curve rises, flat­tens, then drops sharply when­ever some new element is intro­duced. The system is now no longer self-organ­ising.

  Neces­sary charac­ter­istics for a group to con­sti­tuted self-organ­ising system, Pask sug­gests, are avoid­ance of fixed role-assign­ments and stereo­typed pro­ced­ures. This is of course tied up with re­dund­ancy of poten­tial com­mand.

  I think we might sum up ‘fixed role as­sign­ment and stereo­typed pro­ced­ures’ in one word—insti­tu­tional­isa­tion.

  Note that these char­acter­istics are neces­sary, not suffi­cient—at the very least the group must first of all con­sti­tute a system in a mean­ing­ful sense; there must be com­mun­ica­tion be­tween the mem­bers, a suffi­cient struc­ture of in­forma­tion chan­nels and feed­back loops.

  The role of the com­puter in Pask’s system may be worry­ing some. Is this not an ana­logue of an author­itar­ian ‘guiding hand’? The answer is, I think, no. It must be re­membered that this is an arti­ficial exer­cise the group is per­form­ing. A problem is set by the oper­ator. There is there­fore no real situ­ation in actu­ality for the group to affect and observe the result of their efforts. It is this func­tion of de­termin­ing and feeding back success/failure in­forma­tion which the machine fulfils.

  The other im­port­ant aspect of the machine as a cata­lyst in the learn­ing process, we have already men­tioned. There is a rough analogy here with the role of ‘influ­ence leader’ in the Hausers’ sense,[4] rather than any author­it­arian ‘over­seer’. I will return to this ques­tion of the role of the machine shortly.

  Regard­ing the group as a de­cision maker, Pask sug­gests that this is perhaps the only sense in which ‘two heads are better than one’ is true—if the ‘two heads’ con­sti­tute a self-organ­ising system. The clue as to why a number of heads, e.g., notori­ously, in com­mit­tees, often turn out to be much worse than one, is, he sug­gests, this busi­ness of role as­sign­ment and stereo­typed pro­ced­ure. He has not, however, sug­gested why this should arise.

  Drawing on know­ledge of beha­viour of a self-organ­ising nature
ex­hibited in other groups, e.g. in­formal shop-floor organ­isa­tion, the adapt­abil­ity and effi­ciency ex­hibited in in­stances of col­lect­ive con­tract working, and similar phe­nomena,[5] we may perhaps offer some sug­ges­tions as to how insti­tu­tional­isa­tion may arise in certain types of circum­stances.

  Imagine a work­shop of reason­able size, in which a number of con­nec­ted pro­cesses are going on, and where there is some vari­ation in the factors af­fect­ing the work to be taken into ac­count. There is con­sider­able evid­ence that the workers in such a shop, working as a co-oper­ating group, are able to organ­ise them­selves without outside inter­fer­ence, in such a way as to cope effi­ciently with the job, and show re­mark­able facil­ity in coping with un­fore­see­able diffi­culties and disrup­tions of normal pro­cedure.

  There are two levels of task here:

  1. The complex of actual pro­duc­tion tasks.
  2. The task of solving the problem of how the group should be organ­ised to perform these first level tasks, and how in­forma­tion about them should be dealt with by the group.

  In situa­tions of the kind I am ima­gin­ing, the organ­isa­tion of the group is largely de­term­ined by the needs of the job, which are fairly obvious to all con­cerned. There is con­tinual feed-back of in­forma­tion from the job to the group. Any un­usual occur­rence will force itself on their notice and will be dealt with ac­cording to their re­sources at that time.

  Purely for the purpose of illus­tra­tion, let us now con­sider the situa­tion of the same type of shop, only this time as­suming that it is organ­ised by a com­mit­tee from outside the shop. The situa­tion in which the com­mit­tee finds itself is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from that of the work group. There are now three levels of problem:

  1. The prob­lems solved by the indi­vidual workers, i.e. their jobs.
  2. The problem of the organ­isa­tion of the work group.
  3. The problem of the organ­isa­tion of the com­mit­tee itself.

  The de­term­ining success/failure in­forma­tion for all these has still to come from (or at least is sup­posed to come from), the net result of the solu­tion of the first level prob­lems, i.e. the state of pro­duc­tion in the shop.

  The com­mit­tee is denied the con­tinu­ous feed-back which the group had. While working on its solu­tion to the second level problem, it will have no in­forma­tion about the success of its altern­atives, only previ­ous find­ings, coded, in prac­tice, in an in­ad­equate way. The degree of success will only be observ­able after a trial period after they have decided on a solu­tion. (Also un­usual cir­cum­stances can only be dealt with as types of occur­rence, since they cannot enumer­ate all pos­sibili­ties. This is import­ant in determ­ining the relat­ive effi­ciency of the two methods of organ­isa­tion, but is of less import­ance in our immedi­ate problem.)

  It follows that the com­mit­tee cannot solve the third problem by a method ana­logous to that used by the original work group in solving the second level problem; while working on the second level problem the com­mit­tee has no compar­able in­forma­tion avail­able to determ­ine the solu­tion of the third level problem. But they must adopt some pro­ced­ure, some organ­isa­tion at a given time. How then is it to be de­term­ined?

  In theory, such a con­trol­ler could still remain an adopt­ive self-organ­ising system, learn­ing the struc­ture to adopt in par­ticu­lar cir­cum­stances over a longer period of time, though it would still suffer from imper­fect in­forma­tion.

  In prac­tice, how­ever, the com­mit­tee promptly convene a meeting, assign spe­cific func­tions and decide on stand­ard pro­ced­ures. The actual de­term­ining in­forma­tion is prob­ably a mixture of person­ality factors (in­clud­ing ex­tern­ally de­prived status) and the exist­ing ideas on organ­isa­tion theory (in­clud­ing local pre­ced­ent) pos­sessed by the mem­bers. Once decided they will shelve the third level problem unless dis­aster, or a new su­perior, strikes, when a similar, but more cum­ber­some, pro­ced­ure will be neces­sary to re-organ­ise the com­mit­tee along the same general lines.

  In other words, within the closed system of the com­mit­tee and work group, there is no, or virtu­ally no, coup­ling be­tween the success of the actual under­taking, i.e. the pro­duc­tion job, and the de­cision pro­ced­ure solving the third level problem. Worse, the factors influ­encing the solu­tion of this problem, far from in­creas­ing the pos­sible variety of the com­mit­tee, lead to rigid­ity and low variety. Owing to this struc­ture it will gener­ally prove less effi­cient than a single ima­gina­tive person.

  We might suggest, then, that it is this isola­tion from the process in terms of which the success of their own activ­ity is defined, which is gener­ally typical of the com­mit­tee situ­ation, which leads to their com­mon failure to exhibit self-organ­ising char­acter­istics, and fre­quent in­ad­equacy as de­cision makers.

  Con­sider the first case of the self-organ­ising work group again. Here it is the job itself which pro­vides the ana­logue of Pask’s machine, as far as feed­back of success/failure in­forma­tion is con­cerned. Also, it has fre­quently been pointed out that in a ‘face-to-face’ group in this kind of situ­ation (i.e. where the need for the situ­ation de­mand­ing col­lect­ive action are fairly obvious, and where some common cri­teria of success exist), that group lead­er­ship tends to be granted to the member or mem­bers best suited to the par­ticu­lar cir­cum­stances ob­tain­ing,* and to change as these circum­stances change. In other words, chan­ging domin­ance, de­term­ined by the needs of the situ­ation. Here again, the job, acting through the group psycho­logy of the face-to-face group per­forms a func­tion ana­logous to Pask’s machine, allo­cating tempor­ary domin­ance in ac­cord­ance with success.

  I now wish to turn from this ques­tion of small group organ­isa­tion to that of larger systems, and con­sider some criti­cisms of con­ven­tional indus­trial organ­isa­tion de­veloped, in par­tic­ular, by Stafford Beer. He main­tains that con­ven­tional ideas of control in complex situa­tions, such as an indus­trial company, or the economy of a country, are crude and in­ad­equate. “The fact is,” he says, “that our whole concept of control is naive, primit­ive, and ridden with an almost retrib­utive idea of caus­al­ity. Control to most people (and what a re­flec­tion this is upon a soph­istic­ated society!) is a crude process of coer­cion.”[6]

  In the lecture re­ferred to earlier, his main thesis was the im­possi­bil­ity of truly effi­cient control of a complex under­taking by the type of rigid hier­archic organ­isa­tion with which we are at present famil­iar. That such systems manage to survive, and work in some sort of manner, as they obvi­ously do, is, he sug­gested, due to the fact that they are not en­tirely what they are sup­posed to be—that there are un­offi­cial self-organ­ising systems and tend­en­cies in the organ­isa­tion which are essen­tial to its sur­vival.

  Beer is un­usu­ally per­cept­ive, and frank, in em­phas­ising the preva­lence and im­port­ance of un­offi­cial ini­tiat­ives at all levels, e.g. (of shop-floor workers). “They arrange things which would horrify man­age­ment, if they ever found out”, (of charge-hands, etc.) “If they did not talk things over and come to mutual agree­ments, the whole busi­ness would col­lapse.”

  The main key­stones in Beer’s argu­ment are Ashby’s ‘Prin­ciple of Re­quis­ite Variety’ from the theory of homeo­stats, and in­forma­tion-theor­etic re­quire­ments for ad­equate channel cap­acity in a multi-level system.

  The prin­ciple of re­quis­ite variety states that, if stabil­ity is to be at­tained, the variety of the con­trol­ling system must be at least as great as the variety of the system to be con­trolled. We have already had an in­stance of this, for this was really the trouble with our hypo­thet­ical com­mit­tee: due to its rigid struc­ture and the need to issue in­struc­tions in terms of stand­ard pro­ced­ures to be adopted, it could not pos­sibly be effi­cient in a situ­ation of any com­plex­ity. If we made the further as­sump­tion that there was no organ­isa­tion of the work group other than that imposed by the com­mit­tee, chaos would be un­avoid­able. Ap­proxi­ma­tions to this occur in ‘working to rule’. In normal working, the ini­tiat­ives of the shop-floor workers would serve as an addi­tional source of variety, this en­abling the prin­ciple of re­quis­ite variety to be satis­fied, at least as far as normal vari­ations in the factors af­fect­ing the pro­duc­tion situ­ation were con­cerned.

  The relev­ance of the re­quire­ments of channel cap­acity is to the in­ad­equate, atten­uated in­forma­tion avail­able at the top of the hier­archy—this is in­evit­able, for, in prac­tice, the channel cap­acity could never be made ad­equate in the sort of pyr­amidical struc­tures we have—and also to the in­ad­equacy of the formal channels be­tween sub­systems (e.g. depart­ments) which require to co-ordin­ate their activ­ities.

  To em­phas­ise how far con­ven­tional mana­gerial ideas of organ­isa­tion are from satis­fying the prin­ciple of re­quis­ite variety, Beer used an
amusing parable con­cern­ing a Martian visitor to Earth, who exam­ines the activ­ities at the lower levels of some large under­taking, the brains of the workers con­cerned, and the organ­isa­tional chart pur­port­ing to show how the under­taking is con­trolled. The visitor is most im­pressed, and deduces that the creatures at the top of the hier­archy must have heads yards wide.

  In dis­cus­sing the at­tempts of an in­ad­equate control system to control a system of greater variety, Beer pointed to the accum­ula­tion of unas­simil­able in­forma­tion likely to occur as the control vainly strug­gles to keep track of the situ­ation.

  A compar­able con­verse phe­nomenon was pointed out by Proudhon in 1851, in what must rank as one of the most proph­etic state­ments about the de­velop­ment of social organ­isa­tion ever written: “(The gov­ern­ment) must make as many laws as it finds in­terests, and, as in­terests are in­numer­able, rela­tions arising from one another mul­tiply to infin­ity, and ant­agon­ism is endless, law­making must go on without stop­ping. Laws, decrees, ordin­ances, re­solu­tions, will fall like hail upon the un­fortun­ate people. After a time the polit­ical ground will be covered by a layer of paper, which the geo­logists will put down among the vicis­situdes of the earth as the papyr­aceous forma­tion.”[7] (The first italics are mine.)

  This is also an early, and lucid, state­ment of the com­plex­ity of the control situ­ation in social organ­isa­tion.

  Beer has some sug­gest­ive ideas on the ques­tion of cent­ral­isa­tion vs. de­central­isa­tion in in­dustry. (That is, cent­ral­isa­tion of control. The ques­tion of cent­ral­isa­tion of plant is a differ­ent, if re­lated, problem.) He puts the di­lemma thus:

Cent­ral­ise: in­suffi­cient channel cap­acity, etc.—cannot work effi­ciently.
De­central­ise: com­pletely autonom­ous units—no cohe­sion, prob­ably ceases to be a system at all.

  The point, he sug­gests is that neither altern­ative corres­ponds to what we find in really effi­cient systems, i.e. complex living organ­isms. What we do find are a number of differ­ent, inter­locking control systems. Beer also draws atten­tion to the pre­val­ence, and im­port­ance, of re­dun­dancy of poten­tial com­mand in self-organ­ising systems, and points out that it is com­pletely alien to the sort of theory of organ­isa­tion found in in­dustry and in similar under­takings.

  The type of organ­isa­tion at which we should aim is, he sug­gests, an organic one, in­volving inter­locking control systems, inter­meshing at all levels, util­ising the prin­ciple of evolving self-organ­ising systems, with the channel cap­acity and flow of in­forma­tion kept as high as pos­sible.[8]

  He men­tioned in this con­nec­tion an Amer­ican busi­ness­man who claimed that his busi­ness was, in part, organ­ised along some­what similar lines and seemed to work very well. The idea was that anybody at all, no matter how ‘junior’ (I do not know whether this was actu­ally re­stric­ted to what are termed ‘staff’ or not), could call a con­fer­ence at short notice, to discuss any­thing they wanted, whether con­nected with
their work or not. Such a meeting could call in the pres­ident of the company himself, or anyone they thought they needed.

  In context of inter­locking control struc­tures, we may note, as a fairly crude example, the syn­dical­ist attempt to co-ordin­ate the activ­ity of their basic units, the factory unions, through an inter­locking two-fold struc­ture of indus­trial and ter­rit­orial feder­ation.

  Let us now contrast two models of de­cision making and control. First we have the model current among man­age­ment theor­ists in in­dustry, with its counter­part in con­ven­tional think­ing about govern­ment in society as a whole. This is the model of a rigid pyr­amidal hier­archy, with lines of ‘com­mun­ica­tion and com­mand’ running from the top to the bottom of the pyramid. There is fixed delin­eation of re­spons­ibil­ity, each element has a speci­fied role, and the pro­ced­ures to be fol­lowed at any level are de­term­ined within fairly narrow limits, and may only be changed by de­cisions of ele­ments higher in the hier­archy. The role of the top group of the hier­archy is some­times sup­posed to be com­par­able to the ‘brain’ of the system.

  The other model is from the cyber­netics of evolving self-organ­ising systems. Here we have a system of large variety, suffi­cient to cope with a complex un­pre­dict­able en­viron­ment. Its char­acter­istics are chan­ging struc­ture, modify­ing itself under con­tinual feed­back from the en­viron­ment, ex­hibit­ing re­dund­ancy of poten­tial com­mand, and in­volving complex inter­locking control struc­tures. Learn­ing and de­cision-making are dis­trib­uted through­out the system, denser perhaps in some areas than others.

  Has any social thinker thought of social organ­isa­tion, actual or pos­sible, in terms com­par­able with this model? I think so. Compare Kropotkin on that society which “seeks the fullest de­velop­ment of free as­soci­ation in all its aspects, in all pos­sible degrees, for all con­ceiv­able pur­poses: an 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 all.”[9]

  Further, “A society to which pre-estab­lished forms crys­tal­lised by law, are repug­nant, which looks for harmony in an ever-chan­ging and fugit­ive equi­lib­rium be­tween a multi­tude of varied forces and influ­ences of every kind, fol­low­ing their own course.”

  The lan­guage is perhaps some­what vague and am­bigu­ous, but for a brief de­scrip­tion in non-tech­nical terms, of a society con­ceived as a complex evolving self-organ­ising system, it could hardly be bet­tered. Cer­tainly not in 1896.

  The tragedy is not that so-called pro­gres­sive thinkers today think that anarch­ist ideas of society and social organ­isa­tion are in­ad­equate. (This is excus­able, and indic­ates failure on the part of anarch­ist propa­gand­ists to develop and spread their ideas.) It is that they think the other model is ad­equate. Also that they are incap­able of think­ing in any other terms.

  Hence such thinkers are sur­prised when they cannot find the great effi­cient de­cision makers they expect in control of our in­stitu­tions. The
‘solu­tions’ they propose to the muddle they do find, would require super­men-gods to work—even if the super­men could obtain ad­equate in­forma­tion to de­term­ine their de­cisions. This, from the nature of the struc­ture, they can never do.

  Again, when exist­ing systems break down, as in indus­trial dis­putes, the tend­ency for the leaders on both sides is to at­tempt to remedy the situ­ation by meas­ures which in­crease the in­ad­equacy of the system. That is, they attempt, by re­organ­isa­tion and con­tract­ual meas­ures, to in­crease the rigid­ity of the system by defin­ing roles and re­spons­ibil­ities more closely, and try to confine the activ­ities of human beings, who are them­selves evolving self-organ­ising systems, within a pre­de­term­ined con­tract­ual frame­work. An inter­est­ing example of this will be found in Wildcat Strike by A. W. Gouldner.

  To return to the con­ven­tional picture of govern­ment and the sup­posed control by the gov­erned in demo­cratic theory:

  Firstly, does what I have said about the in­effi­ciency and crudity of the govern­mental model as a control mechan­ism con­flict with Grey Walter’s ana­lysis in his article “The De­velop­ment and Sig­nific­ance of Cyber­netics” in Anarchy 25, in which he claimed that Western demo­cratic systems were re­mark­ably soph­istic­ated from the cyber­netic point of view?

  I do not think so. The point is that what I am claim­ing is that they are in­ad­equate for con­trol­ling the economy, say, or provid­ing the great­est com­pat­ible satis­fac­tions for the gov­erned, as Proudhon pointed out. I would also claim that they are in­ad­equate as mechan­isms for main­tain­ing order in society, unless society is con­ceived as largely self-reg­ulat­ing without the govern­mental in­stitu­tions. Given this, I do not deny that the govern­ment-elect­orate system has proved an effi­cient machine for main­tain­ing itself, al­though I might be in­clined to give a little more im­port­ance to un­offi­cial, in­formal ele­ments in the system in this context than Grey Walter does in his article.

  I agree that the system is well adapted to this task. Also, various psycho­logical factors outside the scope of cyber­netics help in the self-per­petu­ation of a system of this nature.

  If the model of effect­ive control by the govern­ment is in­ad­equate, the naive demo­cratic theory of control of the govern­ment by the people is much more so. This theory puts great stress on the im­port­ance of elec­tions as the means by which the gov­erned control their rulers and on the results of the elec­tions, and hence, deriv­at­ively, on the con­stitu­tion and beha­viour of the govern­ment, as ex­pres­sions of ‘the will of the people’.

  If we con­sider the indi­viudal, in a two party system, he is allowed one binary choice every five years or so, in which to reflect all the complex, dimly under­stood, effects of govern­ment actions, in­tended and un­in­tended. The model seems to allow of no struc­tured sub­system to be iden­ti­fied as ‘the people’—there is only an ag­greg­ate of indi­vidual choices.

  It seems to me signi­fic­ant that this theory of self-govern­ment of the people, by the people, through uni­versal, or at least wide, suf­frage,
de­veloped in the 18th and 19th cen­tur­ies along with the growth of the ‘rabble hypo­thesis’ of society (i.e. society as an un­struc­tured ag­greg­ate of indi­vidual social atoms, pursu­ing their own ego­centric in­terests, held to­gether only by author­ity and coer­cion). Soci­olo­gists and social psycho­lo­gists now find this picture of society com­pletely in­ad­equate.[10]

  This is not to deny the genius of some of the thinkers who worked within the limit­ations of this model of demo­cracy, for they were able to see the diffi­culties in prac­tice, and devised most com­plic­ated systems of checks and bal­ances to render their systems prac­tic­able, (e.g. the archi­tects of the Amer­ican con­stitu­tion, as Grey Walter points out). However, they could not be ex­pected to over­come the funda­mental in­ad­equa­cies of their model of govern­ment of the people, by the people, for the people, no matter how suc­cess­ful they were in de­velop­ing the skel­etons of viable self-per­petu­ating systems.

  In con­trast to the ‘rabble hypo­thesis’, we find that liber­tarian social­ist thought, espe­cially in Kropotkin and Landauer, showed an early grasp of the complex group struc­ture of society; society as a complex network of chan­ging rela­tion­ships, in­volving many struc­tures of cor­related activ­ity and mutual aid, inde­pend­ent of author­itar­ian coer­cion. It was against this back­ground that they de­veloped their theor­ies of social organ­isa­tion.

  Neither am I con­vinced by the more soph­istic­ated pres­sure group theory of demo­cracy, intro­duced in an at­tempt to avoid the obvious in­ad­equacy of the naive theory. As a de­script­ive theory of the actual situ­ation it does seem reason­ably ad­equate, but as a means by which the indi­vidual obtains a voice in de­cisions affect­ing him, it is just as in­ad­equate as the naive theory. This in fact is gener­ally ad­mitted by its ad­her­ents, who have largely dropped the idea of demo­cracy as self-govern­ment.[11]

  In the case where a group, of a self-organ­ising type, freely organ­ises itself to tackle some situ­ation, the re­sult­ing struc­ture adopted by the group might be taken to exhibit ‘the will of the group’. More gene­rally, groups of this nature are capable of genuine group de­cisions. Such ex­pres­sions as ‘the will of the group (people)’ are, I suggest, ac­cept­able, and only as a rather danger­ous short­hand, solely in cases of this sort.

  In direct ap­plica­tion, this is, of course, limited to fairly small groups, since, beyond a certain size, an un­struc­tured ag­greg­ate of human beings is unable to act as a group, because there is too much in­forma­tion to be handled. The channel cap­acity is prob­ably in­ade­quate, and, even if the indi­vidual member could be presen­ted with suffi­cient in­forma­tion, he would be unable to deal with it.

  In certain work situ­ations where the job ef­fect­ively con­strains the system, and only part of the beha­viour needs to be correl­ated, we might expect larger ag­greg­ates to be capable of beha­viour as a group. This is borne out by experi­ence. In a situ­ation where complex activ­ity has to be correl­ated and there are few prior con­straints, e.g. col­lect­ive im­prov­isa­tion in a jazz band, most re­search groups, dis­cus­sion groups, a maxi­mum of the order of ten seems to be imposed; in manual jobs
of certain types, and in the groups of the gang system at Coventry, much larger ag­greg­ates are found capable of coher­ent beha­viour—groups of the order of a hundred or even a thou­sand mem­bers. Some of the very large groups, e.g. in the motor in­dustry, may, however, be ex­amples of more complex organ­isa­tion.

  We have said that only small ag­greg­ates of human beings, if re­garded ini­tially as un­struc­tured, can ex­hibit genuine group beha­viour. There is no reason, however, why large ag­greg­ates, if suffi­ciently struc­tured, should not main­tain coher­ent beha­viour, while re­tain­ing genuine self-organ­ising char­acter­istics en­abling them to deal with un­pre­dict­able dis­turb­ances in their en­viron­ment (in­clud­ing in ‘en­viron­ment’ their own ‘sub­stance’, i.e. the human being con­sti­tut­ing the ag­greg­ate) without de­velop­ing a hier­archic struc­ture in the author­it­arian sense.

  This is not to say that there will be no hier­archy in the logical sense. There will cer­tainly be func­tional hier­archy in the sense of multi-level in­forma­tion flow, i.e. problem solving at the level of group en­viron­ment, in­ternal activ­ity of sub­group, rela­tions be­tween sub­groups, and so on. We have seen that this need not neces­sarily mean differ­ent isol­at­able phys­ical parts hand­ling the differ­ent levels. In a situ­ation of great com­plex­ity, however, we would expect to find ana­tom­ical hier­archies, in as far as there would be iden­tifi­able sub­groups, of varying degrees of per­man­ence of form and con­stitu­tion, dealing with differ­ent levels of activ­ity.

  The essen­tial points are that the exist­ence of re­dund­ancy of poten­tial com­mand, with chan­ging domin­ance, means that any ana­lysis of part of the system at any time in terms of a hier­archic model must be re­garded with caution, and that, where such ana­tom­ical hier­archy is dis­tin­guish­able, it need not be a ques­tion of the higher levels con­trol­ling the lower by coer­cive sanc­tions, but rather of feeding back in­forma­tion to bias the autonom­ous activ­ity of the other sub­group. In short, a very differ­ent sort of hier­archy from that of mana­gerial theory.

  There cer­tainly need not be any isol­at­able ‘control unit’ con­trol­ling the rest.

  I am using ‘struc­tured’ here in a sense com­par­able to Buber, i.e. pos­ses­sing a struc­ture of con­nec­ted sub­groups, group­ings or sub­groups, etc., of a func­tional nature, but I would place relat­ively less em­phasis on formal federa­tion of sub­groups, even in mul­tiple federa­tion, than Buber,[12] and more on more complex forms of con­nec­tion. Also I am count­ing as sub­groups both local­ised and more diffuse struc­tures, formal and in­formal. One form of con­nec­tion which seems to be of im­port­ance, is the case of diffuse sub­struc­tures ‘pen­etrat­ing’ into more local­ised ones, e.g. certain mem­bers of a par­ticu­lar sub­group­ing being mem­bers of some more wide­spread group­ing, some sort of inter­est asso­ci­ation, say, and thus serving as a means by which in­forma­tion about special forms of activ­ity, passing in the more wide­spread struc­tures, can pass into the local­ised struc­ture, and play a part in de­term­ining its sub­se­quent beha­viour.

  I hope I have shown that ideas derived from cyber­netics and infor­ma­tion theory are sug­gest­ive of fruit­ful lines of ap­proach in con­sider­ing social organ­isa­tion, espe­cially to the liber­tarian. I would not, however, expect too much in the way of rigor­ous direct ap­plica­tion of cyber­netic tech­nique to social situ­ations, for two reasons. Firstly there is the dif­fi­culty of speci­fying ad­equate and gener­ally ac­cept­able models of com­plex social situa­tions, where the bias of the ob­server is no­tori­ously ef­fect­ive in de­term­ining the picture he adopts. Secondly, the in­forma­tion theor­etic concept of ‘in­forma­tion’ is an ab­stract one which em­pha­sises only the select­ive char­acter­istic on in­forma­tion. There are situa­tions in which this is not en­tirely ad­equate.

  This, however, is no excuse for re­main­ing bound by a primit­ive and in­ad­equate model of de­cision-making and control pro­ced­ures. The basic premise of the govern­mental­ist—namely, that any society must in­corpor­ate some mechan­ism for overall control—is cer­tainly true, if we use ‘control’ in the sense of ‘main­tain a large number of crit­ical vari­ables within limits of toler­ation.’ Indeed, the state­ment is virtu­ally a tauto­logy, since if such a situ­ation did not exist, the ag­greg­ate would not pos­sess suffi­cient stabil­ity to merit the de­signa­tion ‘a society’.

  The error of the govern­mental­ist is to think that ‘in­corpor­ate some mechan­ism for control’ is always equi­val­ent to ‘in­clude a fixed isol­at­able control unit to which the rest, i.e. the major­ity, of the system is sub­ser­vient’. 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—and much less easy to de­scribe. Indeed, we are perhaps just begin­ning to de­velop an ad­equate lan­guage to de­scribe such situ­ations, despite the proph­etic in­sights of a few men in the past.

  A quota­tion from Proudhon makes a fitting con­clu­sion—and start­ing point—“People like simple ideas and are right to like them. Un­fortu­nately, the sim­pli­city they seek is only to be found in ele­ment­ary things; and the world, society, and man are made up of in­sol­uble prob­lems, con­trary prin­ciples, and con­flict­ing forces. Organ­ism means com­plica­tion, and mul­tipli­city means contra­dic­tion, op­posi­tion, inde­pend­ence.”[13]

* ‘best suited’ that is from the point of view of the group.

  1. See Seymour Melman: Decision-Making and Productivity (Blackwell, 1958).
  2. Gordon Pask: “Inter­ac­tion between a Group of Sub­jects and an Adapt­ive Auto­maton to produce a Self-Organ­ising System for De­cision-Making” in the sym­posium Self-Organ­ising Systems, 1962, ed. Jovits, Jacobi and Goldstein (Spartan Books).
  3. See Stafford Beer: Cyber­netics and Manage­ment (English Uni­ver­sities Press, 1959) pp.123-127, and Gordon Pask: An Ap­proach to Cyber­netics (Hutchin­son, 1961).
  4. See Richard and Heph­zibah Hauser: The Frat­ernal Society (Bodley Head, 1962).
  5. See, for example, the paper by Trist on col­lect­ive con­tract working in the Durham coal­field quoted by H. Clegg in A New Ap­proach to Indus­trial Demo­cracy (Black­well, 1960) and the dis­cus­sion of this book by Geoffrey Oster­gaard in ANARCHY 2. Note the ap­pear­ance of new ele­ments of job rota­tion.
      Despite his empha­sis on the formal aspects of worker organ­isa­tion, Melman’s ana­lysis (see Note 1) of the worker de­cision pro­cess at Standard’s brings out many of the carac­ter­istics of a self-organ­ising system: the evolving nature of the process; the diffi­culty of de­termin­ing where a par­tic­ular de­cision was made; chan­ging domin­ance; the way in which the cumul­ative ex­peri­ence of the group changes the frame of refer­ence against which subse­quent prob­lems are set for solu­tion. A better idea of the gang system from which this derives can, however, be ob­tained from Reg Wright’s articles in ANARCHY 2 & 8.
  6. Beer op. cit. p.21.
  7. P.-J. Proudhon: The General Idea of the Revolu­tion in the Nine­teenth Century (Freedom Press, 1923).
  8. Compare also the con­clud­ing section of Pask’s An Ap­proach to Cyber­netics, in par­ticu­lar the dis­cus­sion of a ‘bio­logic­ally organ­ised’ factory.
  9. Peter Kropotkin: Anarch­ism, its Philo­sophy and Ideal (Freedom Press, 1895).
  10. See, for example J. A. C. Brown: The Social Psycho­logy of In­dustry (Penguin, 1954), Ch. 2.
  11. See Clegg: A New Ap­proach to Indus­trial Demo­cracy and G. Ostergaard’s dis­cus­sion in ANARCHY 2.
  12. See Martin Buber: Paths in Utopia (Rout­ledge, 1949).
  13. P.-J. Proudhon: The Theory of Tax­ation (1861) quoted in Buber op. cit.