“The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World” by Ran Abramitzky— Thriving and Declining

Abramitzky, Ran. “ The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World”, (“The Princeton Economic History of the Western World), Princeton University Press, 2018.

Thriving and Declining

Amos Lassen

Ran Abramitzky’s “The Mystery of the Kibbutz” is a very special book for me in that a good part of my life was spent living on a kibbutz in Israel. Let’s look at Abramitzky’s definition of kibbutz— “The kibbutz is a social experiment in collective living that challenges traditional economic theory. By sharing all income and resources equally among its members, the kibbutz system created strong incentives to free ride or―as in the case of the most educated and skilled―to depart for the city. Yet for much of the twentieth century kibbutzim thrived, and kibbutz life was perceived as idyllic both by members and the outside world.” Abramitzky blends economic perspectives with personal insights to examine how kibbutzim successfully maintained equal sharing for so long despite their inherent incentive problems.

Abramitzky uses his own family’s experiences as kibbutz members with extensive economic and historical data, We look at the idealism and historic circumstances that helped kibbutzim overcome their economic contradictions. We see how the design of kibbutzim met the challenges of thriving as enclaves in a capitalist world and then evaluates kibbutzim’s success at sustaining economic equality. Through looking at extensive historical data and the stories of his pioneering grandmother who founded a kibbutz, his uncle who remained in a kibbutz his entire adult life, and his mother who was raised in and left the kibbutz, we see  the rise and fall of the kibbutz movement. The kibbutz as a unique social experiment extends far beyond the kibbutz itself and  serves as a guide to societies that strive to foster economic and social equality.

Extensive statistical data is used to analyze this paradox, along with many stories of the author’s relatives who forged, embraced and sometimes rejected the kibbutz way of life. We look at whether egalitarian and voluntary communities can thrive within a capitalist society. This is a fascinating, important book that was written with deep personal insight and incisive economic analysis. That analysis of how individuals’ equality in income and consumption in a collective-production society could survive but eventually collapse. We see economics come to life through the lens of a unique social experiment in communal living, teaching us how economic incentives and social contracts shape our society today.

We saw how individuals’ equality in income and consumption in a collective-production society could survive but eventually collapse. Ran Abramitzky uses unique data on almost the entire population of the kibbutzim from 1910 to 2000/

Enriching socio-economic theory combined with reader-friendly professional discourse and statistical analysis, along with personal reminiscence all come together here. The overall frame is economic, but other important factors such as identity, culture, politics, and social structure” are considered as well.

These Israeli collective settlements were built on idealistic commitment to Zionism combined with the Communist egalitarian principle “from each according to ability, to each according to his needs.” Also supplying members with many internal public goods, kibbutzim have successfully coped with brain drain, free-riding, and the tendency of less-productive individuals to join for many years. When Israeli political and economic transformations endangered their existence kibbutzim were able to adjust. Most provided more privacy and differential wages, thus contradicting their foundational values but still supplying a substantive safety net and significant public goods. And some of the richer Kibbutzim succeeded to maintain full equality while expanding their economic bases.

“Kibbutzim stood for many years as ‘proof’ that socialism and income equality can actually work,” but “opponents of socialism look at the shift away from income sharing and communal ownership of property is proof that any socialist society is doomed to fail”. Not taking a clear stand on the issue is fully justified: It depends on many dynamic variables that change non-linearly.

Writer Abramitzky’s grandparents left their homes in Poland to help found one of the first kibbutzim. The story here looks at the pros and cons of kibbutz life and a well-told story about determination, courage and just plain hard work. Even with all of the charts, graphs and research, this is a wonderfully written story that is readable for all. For today (the  21st century) this is both a cautionary tale and an optimistic look what a society based on cooperation and concern for fellow humans might look like. I do not personally like charts but those included here are totally explained and honestly so.

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