A Space colony as a Kibbutz

Can the unique experience of the Israeli Kibbutzim settlements offer us any insight into how a space colony could develop politically and economically?

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An aerial view of an Israeli Kibbutz.

I have previously challenged the idea of space colonies on Mars or other planets should end up as either some sort of dictatorship of libertarian heaven.

My previous story, focused on the experience of Viking colonization of Iceland as well as dutch experience of living inside a polder, with the threat of drowning from flooding.

A perhaps even more interesting model to study is the Israeli Kibbutz. These are small communities from a few dozen to a few hundred people. When the first ones were founded back in the 1920s they were primarily agricultural. Today they run all sorts of business.

How is a Kibbutz relevant to space colonization? The history of the early Kibbutz tells us an interesting story about conditions which has many similarities a space colony. They were typically created in hostile environments not suitable for agriculture such as swamps or desserts. Likewise a space colony will be founded on land which is not well suited for human survival.

Early individual attempts at settling the land had failed because it was simply to challenging and dangerous. There was a significant danger of bedouin attacks, and an individual family did not always know much about how to farm. The jews settling the land came from urban environments.

The solution was settlements in groups. That was the foundation of the Kibbutz. Socialist ideas were popular then and there was a lot of idealism towards how a new country should be built. Thus the Kibbutz were built on communist principles.

Exactly how a Kibbutz was organized varied a lot. Although most were atheist and socialist in style, there were also religious ones. The Kibbutz have also evolved over time and most Kibbutz are quite different from the original Kibbutz.

What I find most interesting when studying this is that the Kibbutz are not quite the fringe thing I had thought it was. I used to believe it was just something that existed in the 70s. But 2% of the population of Israel live in a Kibbutz and 40% of Israel’s agricultural output comes from Kibbutz. In 1948 6% of the population lived in a Kibbutz. So while the Kibbutz have not always lived up to expectations they have not been failures either.

Based on my research of the topic the typical Kibbutz was communist in nature. Meaning people worked according to ability and received according to need. Here are some of the details I could gather:

  • People did not get salaries. They got essentially pocket money.
  • Housing, food, child care etc is free.
  • People typically eat together in a big food hall.
  • It is very democratic so they would vote on all sorts of issues and elect leaders.
  • All the work in rotated, so you might do management work one day and milk cows the next day.
  • If you need to travel to some place using an expensive plane ticket, then the community would vote on the merit of sending you there and fund it.
  • Things like cars would be community owned and utilized according to need.

In the 80s the Kibbutz started evolving to a different model. The way I like to look at it from my Norwegian perspective is that they went from a communist model, where everything is shared to a social democratic model. Like in a social democracy not everything is communally owned and shared and people make different salaries. That is what happened in the Kibbutzim. People would start getting more in salary and differentiated salary based on the work they did. But they also had to pay for a lot more things such as food.

But as in a social democracy, the Kibbutz would function as a safety net. They would help with things such as health care and education. So I would say it evolved in a hybrid system between capitalism and socialist/communist ideas.

However it is worth noting that there is still a lot of variation in how the kibbutzim operate. Many are in fact still operating along communist lines even if the majority, the so called privatized ones, are more social democratic in nature.

While not the Kibbutz are not perfect they seemed to have worked quite well. So they should also be possible as a social model for a space colony. The kibbutzim population of a few dozen to a few hundred people would match well the likely size of a space colony.

Some rotation of tasks would make sense since you don’t want to end up in a situation where a person who has a specialized crucial skill is somehow made indisposed putting the whole colony at risk.

There is also the question of motivation to go. People went to Israel establishing the Kibbutzim knowing they would work together. Would people have gone if they knew somebody would be in charge with dictatorial powers for the rest of their lives? I don’t think people would want to go colonize Mars knowing they would live under dictatorial conditions. The first people colonizing Mars will likely be much like the people who left Europe to establish the Kibbutzim in an inhospitable territory. These will be idealists with pioneer spirit.

The question of course is how society would work at a larger scale. Nobody has ever managed to get communism to work at a scale similar to a whole state. While the Kibbutzim themselves were communist they non the less existed within a country driven by market economy principles. The products the kibbutzim bought and sold were traded at market prices.

That makes it very different from say the Soviet Union where prices were decided upon centrally.

I would imagine that for early colonies there would be little trade and money economy going on internally in a colony. They would instead work like a communist kibbutz. However between colonies I think one would see trade and a market economy.

Each colony will likely try to be as self sufficient as possible. Relying on trade with another colony seems like a risky position to put yourself in. As the overall population grows I think it is natural to expect similar development as found in Israel. When the total population gets much larger people will feel less need of a strong community that has your back, because you can simply move between bases or there may be a stronger more resourceful central state which can look after you.

From the very beginning there will probably be colonies established based on different organizational and philosophical beliefs. Socialism stood strong among jewish intellectuals when the first Kibbutz were established.

However a lot of early colonies will likely come from the US, where socialist ideas have low popularity, and libertarian ideas are stronger among utopians. So I would expect to see colonies established based on different ideologies.

Which ideologies which will prove successful in practice is another matter.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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