Reading for Class: Rethinking Marxism and David F. Ruccio
State capitalism redux?

Cold War Cybernetics, Strategy and Managerial Governance: Unpicking the Military Roots of Neoliberalism

by Egle Rindzeviciute on November 1, 2019

The forum editors propose to re-orient the agenda of IPE studies away from the critique of neoliberalism as ideology and a corporate practice to a comprehensive study of managerial governance as a complex field that was shaped by technology, science, politics and management practice and that was co-opted by neoliberal economic thinkers. I am very sympathetic with this timely call. As Quinn Slobodian (2018) showed in his book Globalists, the key economists that are associated with the neoliberal thought articulated their ideas about the free market and governance in response to what they saw as pressing political and social changes: the rise of communism and fascism in Europe and decolonisation and unmaking of European empires. The military and defence policy played an important role here. It is impossible to do justice to outlining the exact character of the links among the military, the neoliberal thought and managerial governance in a brief essay, but I hope that the ideas and examples presented below can serve as pointers for future discussion.

The Foucauldian work on Western colonial administration and governance-at-a-distance differentiates between militarism that is concerned with sovereignty and security that is concerned with management of populations to their own good (Burchell, Gordon and Miller 1991). In this line of thought, managerialisation and securitisation of governance are long term processes that have more in common with liberalism than “neoliberalism” (Dodsworth 2019). To put it bluntly, governmentality is for peace, sovereignty is for war. However, the Cold War political context blurred this distinction by introducing strategic thought and cybernetic technologies as a basis for managerial and governmental action.

World War II defence efforts established influential programmes of research into logistics, automation and servomechanisms. This work resulted in cybernetics: a broad scientific and engineering inquiry into communication and control processes that became extremely influential in the East and West (Agar 2003, Gerovitch 2002, Peters 2016, Rindzeviciute 2016, see also a special issue edited by Ivan Boldyrev and Till Duppe for History of Political Economy 2019). However, it would be wrong to call cybernetic management a military technology, although it was used to develop the war machine, entangled with Cold War politics. Cybernetic management and policy sciences were shaped equally by insights from biology, neurosciences, physiology and behavioural sciences. Cybernetic research was concerned with emergent forms of order and viable systems, the phenomena that had been bothering business entrepreneurs and statesmen for more than two centuries.

This said, it is certain that the cybernetic language and conceptual framework brought business and military thinkers closer to each other. One example of such rapprochement is policy and business strategy. This rapprochement was not a magic bullet to solve the issues faced by decision makers. Battlefields and economic realities continued to crush the elegant rational schemes of strategists through business cycles of boom and bust and the chaotic mess of war. This was made clear by historians of strategy and scholars of organisational behaviour (Freedman 2013). As Barbara Czarniawska noted, “strategic planning is central planning; the difference lies primarily in size”. Moreover, “just as there is no perfect competitive market, there was no perfectly centrally planned economy”: in both state socialist and capitalist economies strategic planning was connected with politics and its links with performance is complex, mediated by multiple acts of translation and what de Certau described as tactical manipulation (Czarniawska 2016:36, 39, 40).

Cybernetic and systems approach to management and policy responded to the challenge of dealing with complex systems that contain human and non-human components. Automation of decision making was expected to help cope with the problem of complexity, scale and speed. However, as suggested above, translating decisions into practice is not something that could be automated.

The interrogation of the links between the military and the (cybernetic) managerial governance can clarify the contemporary institutional and conceptual architecture of control. One such area is strategic manipulation and deception that is deployed in warfare, but also trading and social media. Consider the case of “reflexive control” that became at the centre of attention after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Reflexive control is a product of the Soviet decision science of the 1960s: it grew out of the recognition of the social, political and technological complexity of human cognition and behavior, developed by Vladimir Lefebvre as part of the Cold War strategy of deception. However, reflexive control shares its epistemology with many lines of Western thought. Soviet decision scientists learned from thinkers like John Harsannyi, Robert Aumann, Thomas Schelling, and Anatol Rapoport whose schemes of strategic informational exchange extended beyond the military and informed many branches of the social and linguistic sciences (Lepskii 2016:73). Lefebvre himself was influence by Karl Popper’s notion of imperfect knowledge and, later, by George Soros’s idea of reflexivity. According to George Soros, “[I]n the real world, the participants’ thinking finds expression not only in statements but also, of course, in various forms of action and behavior. That makes reflexivity a much broader phenomenon than self-reference: it connects the universe of thoughts with the universe of events” (Soros 2014:312).

As Joel Isaac elucidates, in the United States reflexivity established “a powerful, potentially dizzying, kind of mutual dependence of decision makers,” where “[E]ach player knows that their best move depends on what others do; but each player also knows that the other players know this too, and they know that the other players know that they know, and so on, in a potentially infinite regress” (Joel 2018:4). The problem of reflexivity increased where there was no information intentionally exchanged between players. No computer, as it seemed, could replace a human person in playing a deception game effectively. Originating in the military context, the Soviet reflexive game theory came close to RAND’s Bernard Brodie’s suggestion that, after all, intuition had an important role to play in decision situations (Bessner 2015, 2018). Indeed, as I detailed in The Power of Systems (2016), RAND’ian systems analysis crossed the Iron Curtain in the 1950s-1960s, where it appealed to the Soviet decision makers as a mere information crunching tool, a computer-based technology. However, as systems analysis developed into an internally diverse field of decision and policy science in the 1970s, many East and West scholars questioned excessive belief in informational models. In such places of East-West cooperation such as the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), arguments were made for decentralization of planning and development of cultural and institutional contexts of decision making. The attribution of power to decide and act thus completed a circle: starting with a personalized decision, moving through a formalist scheme based on cognitive psychology and information theory that can be computed, and returning to the human and societal basis of the decision. This was not a bad loop at all: a new understanding of decision situation was gained in this process (Rindzeviciute 2018).

There is a lesson to be learned from the studies of Cold War cybernetic strategy. In order to understand the way in which free market ideology and managerial governance are deployed in the neoliberal framework one needs to draw on ethnographic sensibilities and the knowledge of historical context. On the one hand, Foucauldian studies of economic neoliberalism as part and parcel of late modern governmentality could involve a more systematic analysis that goes beyond comparative research of managerial governance in non-liberal democratic regimes. On the other hand, the leftist critique of neoliberal political economy should not throw out the baby with the bathwater: managerial practices can also empower the roots, as shown by organization scholars who studied the effective movements against neoliberal financialisation (Zapata et al 2015). Studies of managerialist governance could learn from STS to avoid overt focus on “-isms” (including militarism) and to unpack instead concrete situations working out the institutional logic, structures and local tactics at play.

Cover image: Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics, St Petersburg

Egle Rindzeviciute
Dr Egle Rindzeviciute is Associate Professor of Criminology and Sociology, the Department of Criminology and Sociology, Kingston University London, the UK. Before coming to Kingston, she held positions at Sciences Po in Paris, France, and Gothenburg and Linkoping universities in Sweden. She was a Visiting Scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge (2019), a Research Fellow at the School of Public Administration, Gothenburg University (2016-2019), as well as Osteuropa Institute in Bremen University and Humbold University in Berlin. Dr Rindzeviciute is a member of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). She is editorial board member of The International Journal of Cultural Policy, Associate Editor of Culture Unbound and Advisory Board Member of Sapiens. Dr Rindzeviciute's last book, The Power of Systems: How Policy Sciences Opened Up the Cold War World, was published by Cornell University Press (2016). She is now working on two book projects, Prediction in Society: Science, Technology and Politics and Beyond Containment: The Making of Nuclear Cultural Heritage.

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