Thursday, September 25, 2008

What can we learn from a Kibbutz?

KibbutniksHow many of us try to sketch a Utopian society in our heads when daydreaming? I know I do. What would that society require and what would it lack? Are there any models of past experiments that got it right or got it close? What can we learn from analyzing them?

A good place to begin is by recognizing that "Utopian" isn't the right word. There will be no Utopias in the future. So, if you're expecting a Candide-ian El Dorado where the very soil populating the earth amounts to limitless wealth then turn away now, my friend, you've come to the wrong place. In any future society there must be compromises. But what works the best? What should we fight for and what can we jettison? Let's look at the example of the Kibbutz.

A Kibbutz is a Jewish communal society in Israel dating back to the beginning of last century. All property is held in common with every Kibbutz member. Their community is voluntary to such a point that children aren't considered members until they are old enough to choose to become a Kibbutznik. All menial jobs such as cooking, cleaning the communal dining hall, toilets, etc. rotate among the community members in addition to their careers. Starting off as an agricultural collective the Kibbutz has evolved into a mixture of agricultural and industrial enterprises, contributing far more than it consumes. For example, only 2.5 percent of Israel's population are Kibbutniks yet Kibbutizm generates 33 percent of the nation's farming products and 6.3 percent of the manufactured goods. This affords the members universal access to education and health care, and with the expansion of neighboring cities the Kibbutizm offer outsiders these services free of charge as well.

Here we encounter our first paradox. Each factory and farming collective is structured from the bottom-up in a rigidly socialistic manner while the distribution of their commodities outside the commune occurs capitalistically. It is encouraging to see these industries out performing Capitalists, but they're still playing the same game. We can see this elsewhere in the worker-controlled factories of Venezuela where laborers sell their goods on the free market as well with similarly stirring results.

The polity within a Kibbutz also mirrors the ideal Anarcho-sydicalist model. Internal decisions are made through direct democracy during general assemblies where each Kibbutznik elects a work coordinator, treasurer and officers as well as appropriating communal funds. This level of participation may be one of the reasons why Kibbutzim are so successful.

Remember all property is shared which means more than just land and the means of production. To illustrate how deeply they hold this concept, imagine someone from the city sends a Kibbutznik a basket of cupcakes. At the next general assembly those cupcakes will be distributed equally amongst everyone. If a service is offered to just one member of the commune such as medical care he or she will catch flack for it at the next general assembly. Not only that but children are typically educated and for the most part reared by communal caregivers and teachers providing parents with the time to engage in chores or enjoy free time with each other. Whatever one's attitude is toward this arrangement the quality of communal schools are indisputably superlative. Surpassing both the private and public sectors, the education system on the commune engenders independence and critical thought. It is no surprise that a disproportionately large number of Israel's doctors, lawyers, actors, writers, and artists were educated on Kibbutzim.

The effects of a society devoid of private property alert us to another dilemma. According to two psychologists, Melford E. Spiro and Bruno Bettelheim, who studied the interactions of Kibbutzniks concluded that private property is equivalent to a sense of personal identity. Without it an individual finds it hard to enter into fulfilling intimate relationships. On the other hand, Kibbutzniks are expert at engaging in lower maintenance relationships with a larger number of people.

What do these facts reveal about how future societies should be organized? Volunteerism must be the underpinning of any new paradigm. Kibbutzniks do not believe a Kibbutz is for everyone and never proselytize their lifestyle. I subscribe to anarcho-sydicalism or a federation of rank-and-file managed trade unions in the same mold as the C.N.T. and the I.W.W. But that might not be for everyone either. Some are furiously independent and want to start a small business with a compliment of employees. Not my idea of liberty but in a truly stateless society that would be his or her choice. As for the thorny issue of property I grasp for some middle ground between communal property and private property otherwise known as usufruct. Usufruct says you own anything you're actively using (house, car, underwear) therefore the disparity in wealth might be slight but nothing like we have today.

The bottom line is I do not have all the answers but I'm still searching. DROs (Dispute Resolution Organizations) are appealing however they need to be worker-controlled in order for me to fully accept them. In any case, a true Anarchist society needs to purge itself of coercion. A noble foundation to build upon.

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