Autonomy is one of the most central ideas in both anarchist political theory and in cybernetics. For the former, autonomy provides one of the key motivations that drives political practice. For the latter, it represents the fundamental condition required for a system's survival. While the same terminology is used in both literatures, in this chapter I want to suggest that there are in fact two distinct but connected definitions of autonomy at play – Functional Autonomy, drawn from cybernetics, and Collective Autonomy, developed through a reading of anarchism and related social movement traditions. These reflect two different sides of anarchist cybernetics: the ethical or political side, that champions anarchy and autonomy because they entail the freedoms individuals and groups are entitled to; and the practical side, that proclaims anarchy as the most effective way to structure a complex society. This chapter will also attempt to show how anarchism reconciles individual and collective autonomy, focusing on how the much-maligned practice of consensus decision making is vital in this regard. I begin the discussion with an overview of the role played by the idea of autonomy in cybernetics.
Autonomy in organisational cybernetics
In her book on Beer's attempt at putting organisational cybernetics into practice in Salvador Allende's Chile in the early 1970s, Eden Medina writes that ‘cybernetic management approached the control problem in a way that preserved a degree of freedom and autonomy for the parts without sacrificing the stability of the whole’ (2011: 29). As discussed in the previous two chapters, this idea of balance, between autonomy on the one hand, and centralisation on the other, is crucial, both with respect to both Beer's cybernetics and with regard to its manifestation in anarchist cybernetics (Duda, 2012). While autonomy is essential for an organisation to be able to flexibly react and respond to complexity and change, at the same time, some degree of coherence between autonomous parts is just as important, because otherwise there would be no organisation, with overarching goals, to speak of. Just as Beer argues that the operational units of any organisation should enjoy a high level of autonomy, he also insists that they should be subject to what he describes as ‘managerial constraint’.