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Tribes, Kibbutzim, and Iron Cages

The ways that Native American tribes and Israeli Kibbutzim view economic production and organization are similar.

Both Indian tribes and Israeli kibbutzim, plural for kibbutz, have engaged in alternative ways of economic production and organization. Both groups have declined to wholly accept the individualistic, personal wealth accumulation, and unequal distributions of wealth that characterizes national and international market systems. Indian tribes and Israeli kibbutzim both have emphasized egalitarianism, equal distribution of economic benefits, and collective over individual well-being.

Nevertheless, in recent decades, many Israeli kibbutzim have abandoned their collective orientations in favor of competitive, market-based, hierarchical corporate organization that reflects greater capability to compete in the world’s competitive market places. Many kibbutzim now focus on market production and distributions of payment or wealth according to performance and skill.

Reservation tribal communities have approached markets primarily through businesses that are under tribal government management. When profits are distributed, they are distributed collectively as per capita payments or community programming. Seventy percent of gaming revenues are reinvested in the tribal community, according to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

While Alaska Native Corporations are organized along American corporate models, most are engaged in cultural, political, and community issues. Alaska Natives see the corporations as for-profit economic enterprises, but also see them as organizations that help preserve culture, community, and identity. In general, American Indian tribes have not wholly adopted American corporate economic models. Rather, tribal businesses have focused on preserving collective community goals, collectively owned assets, egalitarianism, and equal distributions of wealth.

In recent decades, Israeli kibbutzim have abandoned their original egalitarian and collective orientations in favor of capitalist corporate business models. Will tribal communities face the same dilemma? Some academics suggest that tribal gaming establishments will need to reorganize to face the competition within the gaming market. The pattern of the kibbutzim suggests that collective and social forms of approaching competitive markets will have to change to compete with corporate business models and forms of supporting social organization.

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The view that economic actions need to become more competitive, individualistic, and pay incentives need to reflect differing skills and contributions, is called the iron cage. The iron cage argument says that once capitalism is introduced into national and international markets, then no person, or group, can escape the need to reorganize in ways that meet the new conditions of competitive production. Not to adapt will lead to economic marginalization and impoverishment. The iron cage vision reflects current predominate views of the consequences of economic and social modernization.

The kibbutzim have bowed to the iron cage pattern, but Native American tribal businesses have not. What are critical differences between the American Indian and kibbutzim experiences? The supporting ideology of the kibbutzim was a utopian vision of rational economic organization and collective well-being through socialist principles. Tribal communities rely on traditional cultural norms and values of economic redistribution and collective stewardship of resources and land.

Instead of changing culture, most tribal communities prefer to approach markets in ways that preserve their community organization and culture. The kibbutzim were most successful in their collective form when they were subsidized by the Israeli government. Owing to budget reductions, the kibbutzim were less and less supported. Many kibbutz had to decide whether to reorganize along corporate economic models or abandon the life in the kibbutz.

American Indian tribal governments are also provided with support from the federal government. Treaties, congressional acts, Indian policy, and tribal self-government support the continuity of tribal governments, which have been the strongest supporters of collective forms of economic development on most reservations. Tribal community members pay federal income tax, and therefore tribal governments most likely will continue and increasingly seek collective economic solutions for their communities.

The cultural and self-government features of U.S. tribal communities are distinctly different from the Israeli kibbutzim. Tribal communities are experimenting with individual entrepreneurship, but collective tribally managed economic businesses are the main pattern. Tribal business enterprises continue to provide an alternative to the forces of the iron cage.