Just as Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities” finds a bit of Venice in every city he describes, Ran Abramitzky sees a kibbutz everywhere he goes. Now a professor at Stanford University, Abramitzky left Israel and the kibbutz ideal 20 years ago, but it seems the kibbutz never left him.
“I see elements of the kibbutz everywhere,” he said in an interview with TheMarker, published here in condensed form. “Starting with African villages, which have a large element of a safety net in them, and running to businesses in Western cities — in law and medical partnerships, where income and profits are shared.
“Also in the tax debate in the United States, I see kibbutzim, in the ongoing debate between Democrats and Republicans. After all, belonging to a kibbutz is like 100% tax — you get a salary and you give it all to the kibbutz. Republicans say, ‘If we raise taxes, people won’t have an incentive to work hard’; Democrats say, ‘But we also need a safety net that can fund welfare policies,’” he said.
His book “The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World,” published by Princeton University Press last year, charts the development of the kibbutz economic model over the century since Degania, the first kibbutz, was established.
It recounts the economic crisis of the 1980s and the often painful privatization process many kibbutzim went through in its wake. He explores why some kibbutzim collapsed while others have thrived. It also looks to the future for what models will work for the kibbutz in the 21st century in an era of hyper-capitalism, as Western countries — including Israel — cope with growing income inequality. The book is the fruit of a more than a decade of research.
A case of human imagination
The book’s cover illustration, by Raphael Perez juxtaposes capitalist Tel Aviv with the socialist kibbutz. It contains iconic elements of the kibbutz — water towers, fruit pickers, watchtowers and tractors. They are arrayed along a wide street that looks like Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, a place where homeless people camp out alongside luxury apartment buildings.
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Is there a place for the kibbutz in the hyper-capitalist era?
“It is clear that countries will not turn themselves into giant kibbutzim, but the kibbutz is a case of human imagination. The kibbutz is an example of imaginative people trying to create an innovative economic model based on equality. The fact is that when there was an increase in inequality and the cost of living, protest movements arose in the U.S., Israel and Spain. It bothers people when there are such gaps.”
What is the secret to the success of the kibbutz?
“For the founding generation it was socialist ideology and Zionism. A group of people with shared goals who wanted to create a new man, people who cared more for each other than for themselves.
“The big advantage of ideologists like that is that they are willing to work hard even if they won’t profit a lot from it. They don’t give up easily. When you have groups like these you solve two common problems of the kibbutz, that of freeloaders, people who know that others will do the work in their stead, and that of brain drain – people don’t leave quickly when the most important thing to them is to achieve their ideological goals.
“For the second generation, living on kibbutz is the default, not a conscious decision as it was for the first generation. Therefore, practical consideration becomes important: People think about what’s good for themselves and their families.
“But the kibbutz has evolved such that even when idealism loses its power, the problem of economic incentives can be tackled. If you’re a freeloader, the people around you will respond in kind. There’s a lot of social pressure. That’s why it’s best to establish small kibbutzim, of 150 to 200 families. You claim you don’t have work? No problem, the work coordinator will send you to the kitchen to peel potatoes. It’s an incentive to find a better job.
“The fascinating thing about the kibbutz is that when there was less ideology and a lot more industry, the model succeeded. Kibbutzim established factories that were exceptionally successful because they were innovative, such as Netafim [the drip irrigation pioneers]. That contradicts the idea that equality doesn’t encourage entrepreneurship. In the kibbutz, failure isn’t a problem because there’s a safety net.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Abramitzky came to the U.S. in 1999 for graduate studies. He holds a doctorate in economics from Northwestern University, and joined the Stanford faculty in 2005.
Abramitzky never lived on a kibbutz, but he has deep roots in the movement: His grandfather was among the founders of Kibbutz Negba and his mother’s family grew up there.
What would an economist say?
When he defends the kibbutz model developed in the 1920s, Abramitzky does so in the context of the world of the 21st century.
“Imagine that the founders of the kibbutz movement had consulted an economist,” he said in a lecture at Tel Aviv University to mark the publication of his book. “And they asked him a single question, ‘How do you recommend we structure the kibbutz?’ If the economist had imagination and the knowledge we have today he probably would tell them, ‘Build the kibbutz just as you have.”
One of the big advantages of the kibbutz model is its social safety net. “It’s insurance, a guarantee that no matter what happens, your and your family’s standard of living will remain unchanged, you will have a roof over your heads and all the services the kibbutz provides. Of course [in Israel’s early days], when people died of cholera, that kind of insurance was much more valuable than today, but even now, in a world without job security in many industries, a safety net like that is worth a lot,” Abramitzky says.
That safety net, which relied heavily on government support, collapsed in the 1980s. Many kibbutzim took out loans they couldn’t repay, sometimes for factories and other enterprises but in some cases for risky financial investments. The result was two bailouts for the kibbutz movement by the government and the banks, in 1989 and again in 1996. The crisis drove many kibbutzim to full or partial privatization. Some kibbutzim fell apart entirely.
In your book you describe the pastoral atmosphere of the kibbutz you experienced personally in the 1970s and ‘80s. But those were the years of the crisis and the era that preceded it. Isn’t that proof that the kibbutz model isn’t so successful after all?
“When I visited Kibbutz Negba at age 16 and saw the swimming pools and tennis courts, it looked to me like an idyllic place. Bus this ideal was the result of two things. One is the great, objective success of the kibbutz. At Negba it was the CLP Industries factory, which made the bags for Tropit juices and Bamba snacks. Kibbutz Hatzerim developed Netafim, and there are lots of other examples.
“The second was government support. At the time, this picturesque place exhibited signs of a crisis. The fact that they were in such a place, enjoying at such a high standard of living, suggests they were living at a high standard than they should have and in many cases government support was part of that.
“The kibbutz crisis had several external components to it. Israel was suffering from hyperinflation and all the kibbutzim were taking out big loans to expand, partly because they were getting rid of the children’s houses and needed to enlarge members’ homes. Suddenly the kibbutzim found that because of high interest rates they owe a lot of money. But you need to remember that the kibbutzim weren’t the only ones that were ensnared by the crisis in those years, A lot of small businesses were affected by external factors.”
Equality is the highest value of the kibbutz, but Abramitzky in his book points to a major problem with how it manifested itself. The homogeneity of the kibbutz population – Ashkenazi Jews who shared the same ideology – meant that the equality was only available for those who get in.
“Think about Sweden and Norway, They are models of the generous welfare state with levels of equality far higher than the U.S. But you can only use this model if you’re really wealthy. The second thing – and the most important – is the homogeneity of the population,” he said.
“This homogeneity is why today kibbutzim aren’t the right place for everyone and why they have such a careful vetting [process for admission]. If you have just a high school education, they won’t let you into a kibbutz. They have no Arabs or Druze. Originally 90% of the kibbutz population was Ashkenazi. The equality is inside and comes at the expense of inequality on the outside.”
Why were there so few Mizrahi Jews in the kibbutzim?
“You have to remember that for people who came from the Middle East, the nuclear family was a lot more important. They weren’t ready to give it up for the big family of the kibbutz.”
Privatization didn’t occur at all the kibbutzim. The wealthier ones that avoided the crisis, such as Hatzerim, Yotvata and Mishmar Ha’emek, were able to preserve the old values and remain successes to this day. About 35 to 40 kibbutzim, or a fifth of the total, continue to enjoy complete equality among their members.
Still, there’s a brain drain problem, correct?
“The transition of Israel from a poor country to a developed economy and a growing high-tech sector caused the most talented people in the kibbutz to look outward, Many asked themselves, ‘Why do I need to share my wealth with some freeloaders when 90 minutes’ drive away in Tel Aviv I can make a lot of money with my talents.’”
Research that Abramitzky himself conducted in 2009 bore that phenomenon out. Still, he said, the kibbutzim found that by preserving as many of their value as they could enabled them to retain old members and attract new ones.
Could you be one of the new ones the day you return to Israel?
I really like the kibbutz, it’s a key part of my life and my kids love to visit there, but personally, I think it’s better for me to be looking at it from the outside. Stanford is a wonderful university. I feel lucky that it has enabled me give back by teaching and research. That has in it an element of the collective idea of the kibbutz.”