The Kibbutz: Some Politics and History

I met a pair of couples this weekend and was able to learn a bit more about the inner workings of the kibbutz, and some history. One of the couples lives on the kibbutz, with the husband being born on the kibbutz and the wife meeting him while she was here on Ulpan. The other couple is based in New York and was visiting over the weekend. I met them on Friday night when I was walking through the dining room with some friends who knew them, and ran into them again today by the swimming pool, where I was able to ask some more specific questions.

Sunset on the beach

Politics

The former Ulpanist was able to shed some more light on the internal politics and structure of kibbutz life. She informed me that all income earned on the kibbutz is given to the kibbutz for its operations. There is very little (if any) personal income allowed. However, the kibbutz has recently allowed people to pick up extra shifts in the dining hall (and I believe a few other places) to make extra money in the form of a paycheck. My guess is that this was a fairly contentious decision. The kibbutz then gives money and resources (food, housing) to its members based on the size of the family. I was somewhat skeptical, but it seems as if Ma’agan Michael is truly realizing the ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The CEO of the plastics factory and the avocado cutter send their whole paychecks to the kibbutz, and they all receive as much as their family size requires. Truly remarkable.

I asked about how housing was distributed (as some houses are nicer than others, and some locations more desirable than others) and she said that family size and seniority were the two main factors. That makes sense, and is in line with other forms of housing assignment I’ve seen before (fraternities and housing cooperatives often assign rooms this way).

She informed me that the kibbutz makes decisions democratically, with electronic ballots being sent to all kibbutz members every two weeks to vote on the most recent issues.

Economic History

The kibbutz’s history stretches back to before the founding of the state of Israel, back to a previous kibbutz in Rehovot. During the fighting against the British, the kibbutz started running a secret munitions factory underneath the kitchens, to supply bullets to the Israeli fighters. After the founding of the state, many members of that kibbutz migrated north to found Ma’agan Michael.

Initially, according to the gentleman from New York, the kibbutz was sustained by off-shore fishing. Eventually, however, the kibbutz started losing money. To stay afloat, the kibbutz started moving transitioning their from off-shore fishing (boats in the sea) to growing fish in fish ponds. This proved a much better model, and the kibbutz was able to return to profitability. The infrastructural requirements of the fish ponds (piping, etc) eventually caused the kibbutz to create their plastics factory, Plasson, to manufacture the materials needs to run the fish ponds. They were able to sell the surplus that they manufactured to outside customers, and created a second form of income.

The beauty here is how the history of the kibbutz interacted with the economic environment to determine the kibbutz’s direction. The initial founders, although intent on becoming fisherman, had valuable knowledge of manufacturing due to their work with the munitions on their prior kibbutz. This knowledge of manufacturing, combined with the need to find alternate sources of income, gave the kibbutz the ability to successfully transition to a fish pond model of generating income, away from the failing off-shore model. Without the manufacturing knowledge, I would venture that it would have been harder to make that transition, due to the need to buy supplies from elsewhere. In this case, the manufacturing knowledge allowed them to both change their fishing operation, as well as create a second, valuable source of income in the form of plastic products.

Ma’agan Michael is widely accepted to be one of the richest kibbutzim in Israel, and their highly diversified sources of revenue are a big part of this. In addition to the fisheries and the plastics factory (two of the largest sources of income), the kibbutz has large animal operations (producing milk and poultry), agriculture operations (producing bananas, papaya, and avocados), as well as a metal factory, Suron, which specializes in high-tech metal products. It’s worth noting also that the fish operation is split into fish grown for consumption, and what they call “ornamental fish,” fish grown for display. I’ve heard that the ornamental fish alone are one of the largest sources of income for the kibbutz.

General Thoughts

The man I was talking said something I thought was really valuable: he think that the profitability of the kibbutz is the main reason why it has been able to remain so socialistic over the decades. I found it remarkable how well Ma’agan Michael seems to be able to realize its ideals, and its profitability is likely a big part of that. As long as the kibbutz is making money, the entire system has a large amount of flexibility and resiliency, and can absorb internal tension. Were the kibbutz to start losing money (as many have in the past), it is likely that the members of the kibbutz would be much less willing to work together and to make individual sacrifice for the community, and adopt a more individual mindset. We can generalize and hypothesize that scarcity acts to shrink the size of the social group. The less there is to go around, the more individuals have to start discriminating and excluding those at the periphery (from their perspective), and the less willing people are to make the sacrifices and compromises necessary to maintain a large group.

The strength of the belief in the principles of socialism among the membership is likely to be a critical component, as a group with very strong beliefs will be more likely to stay together in the face of adversity than a group less so committed. It’s worth thinking for a moment then about how beliefs evolve through groups from generation to generation. As the group succeeds and grows, it is likely that it will attract new members less ideologically committed. In addition, children and future generations might also be less ideologically committed than their parents, growing up in a socialist environment (one of my assumptions here is that growing up in a capitalist or authoritarian environment would encourage strong socialist beliefs by way of contrast). One the ideology “dilutes” in this way, I would expect the group to be less able to rely on ideological unity to weather economic downturns and other resources crises.

I wonder to what extent socialism is a “fair weather” ideology. Looking at the political climate in the United States today, we can see how the economic recession has led to a much more favorable conversation around cutting social programs. I wonder what the implications might be for socialism as a foundational philosophy for a state. Is it sufficiently resilient, given actual (as opposed to idealized) human nature?

I’ve been reading E.O. Wilsons On Human Nature, which might explain why my thoughts have been migrating this direction. Might there be political ideologies more in line with “human nature” than others? Political theorists from Locke to Rousseau to Smith to Marx have used human nature as a justification for their prescriptions. Might a scientific understanding of human nature allow us to develop an optimal political philosophy? Good question.

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