Searching for the Good Society at the University

The subject was “the good society,” but someone asked whether the objective shouldn’t be “a better society”?

The question was raised almost at the outset of a freewheeling, three-day colloquium on “Searching for the Good Society—The Kibbutz and Other Experiences,” sponsored jointly by the University’s Institute for the Study of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea and by the Carmel Institute of Social Studies’ Center for a Good Society.

It was Baruch Kney Paz, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, who thought it more useful to think of a “better” society. “If you go for the best, you often end up with the worst,” he advised. Besides, there was a problem of universal validity: “What’s good for me is not necessarily good for someone else.”

The great challenge, in his opinion, was to make the society both better and moral. Paz also posited the heterodox notion that “you can’t have the good society without a market economy.”

“I’m a socialist,” he told his listeners as if to make him less suspect, “but we need private entitlements. We have to accept the principle of competition and some unequal allocation. It’s a question of individual rights being accepted.”

This last element, he admitted, may perhaps be a result of affluence. But, he concluded, “a good society is not a poor society. The equality of poverty is not a sexy notion.”

Raymond Russell of the University of California at Riverside later picked on this theme of the rising standard of living of kibbutzim. That was not what was deteriorating the kibbutz, whose “stubborn adherence to tradition” he finds amazing.

Though he thinks a line may have been crossed with the employment of outside labor, he judges the kibbutz to be the “most democratic workplace in the world.” The changes taking place in the kibbutz are, for this American academician, “signs of moving from direct democracy to representative democracy.” He predicts that the kibbutz will continue to deteriorate “for the next 100-200 years.”

Less sanguine about the good or even a better society was Edward Greenberg of the University Colorado, a world expert on workplace democracy. “Democracy is not particularly evident at the workplace,” he stated pessimistically, after noting that workplace democracy had to be a major component of the good society.

The only advances on this front, he feels, come about when workers use some measure of power—whether at the workplace itself or in society—to achieve them.

He points to a noticeable decline around the world in the extent to which companies are willing to cooperate with labor unions, even where this was traditional. Paralleling this development is a decrease in the influence of socialist ideas in Labor Parties themselves.

Greenberg, whose book, The Struggle for Democracy, has become a textbook on the subject, sees mounting evidence of a roll back of the welfare state, though he doubts it will disappear, especially in the areas of old-age benefits, health care, and education. Nonetheless, “Capitalism has the upper hand, and both nation-states and workers are on the defensive.”

Paradoxically many large corporations have become less and less hierarchical, allowing more self-monitoring, which induces more efficiency. The result is that global firms, which have been pressing unions to be more flexible, have actually been handing over control in areas where this was not previously done.

The director of the Kibbutz Institute, Dr. Gila Adar, a member of Kibbutz Gaaton, had raised the question whether the good society equalled the good life. The latter, she thought, was achieved only by the few. The quest for a just society still went on and somehow—“maybe because Israel is the land of miracles,” she ventured—the Israeli colloquium participants were less pessimistic about its attainment than were their colleagues from overseas.

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