Building a Socialist Life in a Capitalist World

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Two nights before I made aliyah, I sat with my family in a Burmese restaurant for a goodbye dinner. My parents still didn’t fully understand exactly what it was that I was moving to Israel to do or what my life would look like, and to be fair neither did I. In particular, my parents were confused and somewhat apprehensive about how money would work. They knew that I was moving to Israel to be part of a socialist movement and had heard me use phrases like “shared economy” and “communal lifestyle,” but they still wanted to know who would pay my rent, if I would receive a salary, and if I would be allowed to buy a cup of coffee.

I struggled to give answers, partially because I didn’t know all of the logistics of what my kvutzah’s economy would look like, but more so because of the unspoken assumptions that seemed to be lying beneath the surface of my parents’ questions. It seemed like my parents were still trying to understand my shitufi (shared), kvutzati lifestyle within an individualist, capitalist framework. Which makes sense; people understand new things by comparing them to what they’re more familiar with. The problem is that in contemporary American society, the only economic structure we’re familiar with, or taught to accept as legitimate, is individualist consumer capitalism.  Our society taught us to glorify “self-sufficiency” and see reliance on others as a failure, to measure people’s worth based on their job titles and bank accounts, and to buy our way to happiness.

Our garin chose to make aliyah and to be part of Dror Israel because we wanted to live a holistic life based on our values. Joining Dror Israel allowed us to be part of an economy centered on values and human needs rather than profit. In Dror Israel, the Tnuat haBogrim (graduate movement) of Habonim Dror and HaNoar HaOved veHaLomed, the main unit around which our economy is organized is the kvutzah, rather than the individual or the nuclear family. My kvutzah is part of Shlav Hachshara Gimmel, the sector of the movement economy for olim. The movement directly pays for most of our living expenses (rent, utilities/bills, transportation) and provides our kvutzah a monthly dmei kiyyum (living stipend) to cover food and other household expenses. Each kvutzah manages its money somewhat differently, and in ours people can take and spend money freely. We keep track of our spending so that we can budget for different kinds of expenses, we consult each other before making large purchases, and we are ultimately accountable to each other for the choices we make, but we don’t need each person to approve of every shekel we spend.

The movement gets its money from a combination of government funding for its educational activities and a few programs and projects that bring in revenue. Most of the movement’s activities do not bring in revenue, but we do not want the value of different messimot (movement jobs) or the people doing them to be determined by how much money they bring in. So while certain movement messimot are technically paid positions, nobody receives an individual paycheck. Instead, the salaries for those tafkidim go into the centralized movement economy. This way, people can make decisions about what messima to do based on their own skills, challenges they want to take on, and the needs of the movement, rather than in response to financial pressure. This system is also the reason that it is possible for our garin to currently have three out of five members in ulpan rather than in a full-time messima or a paid job.

In this and many other ways, the movement economy liberates us from the pressure, competition, and isolation of individual capitalist living. But as much as we are committed to a values-based economy, we are equally committed to shaping and being full members of Israeli society – which means participating in capitalism. If we wanted to live a completely pure socialist lifestyle, never touching money and living only off of the products off our own labor, we could do that. We would have to create an autonomous commune in the woods somewhere, but we could do it. But our secluded utopia wouldn’t do anything to make Israel a more just society or to take responsibility for the Jewish people. Instead, we choose to live in the tension of trying to fulfill our values while being part of a deeply flawed society that we deeply care about.

So we buy goods made by people we don’t know or see, support institutions we dislike, and face the pressures of modern capitalism. And even though we believe firmly in our socialist lifestyle, we have also grown up and been socialized in capitalist society. We can’t just turn off our desire to buy nice things or the sense that having money that no one else can touch gives us security. Every day we grapple with these tensions. It can be exhausting to be financially accountable to and responsible for other people when we grew up being told that money is a private, personal matter. We’ve had to have really hard conversations about what kind of financial backgrounds we each come from and how we’re used to spending money. We have to really ask ourselves what the difference is between our needs and wants and how to meet both individual and collective needs.

We have the security of knowing that our needs will be met and the freedom to do fulfilling messimot without worrying about needing to make money. But it also sometimes feels restricting. I can’t spend as much money as I’m used to. It’s awkward to go out with a friend to a nice restaurant that a year ago I would’ve enjoyed without a second thought, but now feels too extravagant for my socialist lifestyle. I have to ask other people if it’s ok for me to get a new pair of shoes.  We’re not ascetics, we sometimes go out to movies or restaurants, but we do seek to limit the role of consumerism in our lives. It is a constant challenge that demands us to be honest and vulnerable with each other in ways we’ve been taught to avoid. But it is an essential part of our choice to live a holistic, shared life. And for those of you keeping score at home, the movement pays my rent, I don’t receive a salary, and I am allowed to buy a cup of coffee.

– Sam Edelman

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