Skip to main content
Blog Post

The New Deal’s Failed Kibbutz in the Desert


April 19, 2024

At the height of the New Deal, with the Social Security Act, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Civilian Conservation Corps already enacted, the Roosevelt Administration’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), veered from reform to the outright radical:  the establishment of an American version of a Soviet collective farm. The largest of nine such projects initiated during 1937 and 1937 was Casa Grande, a 3600-acre cotton, alfalfa, sorghum, and livestock farm on irrigated desert land in Pinal County, Arizona, established to be collectively owned, governed, and farmed as a group by 57 households. The federal government had purchased the land from private owners and used Works Progress Administration (WPA) labor to build new homes for the farmers. Notwithstanding the act that the local Chamber of Commerce feared “a community of this kid would be in contravention to our democratic form of government,” and neighbors called it “Little Russia,” the FSA, led by Roosevelt “brains trust” advisor Rexford Tugwell, was sure that “a farm organized for the benefit of the workers” could be “better for the farm workers than their present position on industrial farms” and that “our experiment in cooperative farming has an excellent chance of success.”

By 1944, the operation had been financially liquidated, having proven to be more Animal Farm than kibbutz, riven by factional infighting on its board, wholesale departures of its members, and a persistent preference on the part of many for their own, individually-owned farms, as one might well expect among Americans. The entire affair might well be an obscure footnote to New Deal history were it not for the fact that the FSA employed, as a public relations expert, one Edward Banfield, who would go on to write a deeply-researched, narrative sociology case study of Casa Grande’s failure.

His book, “Government Project,” reissued by American Enterprise Institute Press, is important on two levels. Its detailed observations about a progressive project gone wrong offers lessons for those who continue to cling to socialist utopianism. Moreover, its republication provides a key work in the ouvre of  Banfield, who would go on to join Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer as the key intellectual critics of such overreaches as the War on Poverty and urban renewal. For those who, rightly, understand Banfield’s 1970 book, The Unheavenly City, as the common sense antidote to government social experimentation, Government Project shows us Banfield, himself a one-time New Dealer, reformulating his own world view based on what he learned first-hand.

The Casa Grande story, as related by Banfield, is actually a page-turner—much as would be his later books on Chicago public housing (Politics, Planning and the Public Interest) and the failed honor culture of rural Basilicata, Italy (Moral Basis of a Backward Society). In the socialist tradition, it had three times as many workers as the mere 20 it really needed. A social class split emerged between those who had once owned their own farms and “Okies,” sharecroppers or migrant workers who’d fled the Dust Bowl. And that the alleged cooperators, who’d been chosen by the government “family selection specialist” rather than stepping forward as kibbutz-style volunteers, divided into two camps—one willing to forego increased wages for the long-run betterment of the enterprise, the other making demands for higher pay and even threatening to strike against an organization they nominally owned. Some dissenters thought those who worked harder at more demanding jobs should be paid more. A taste of real socialism as it played out elsewhere

The story itself is surprisingly compelling, but it is Banfield’s analyses which make this a book that continues to deserve close reading and a template for understanding the blind spots of progressivism. There were some in the government who had the itch to create a real, live Utopia.

Its failure would not forestall similar liberal impulses later—notably the public housing movement, which included failed cooperatative management in Washington and Boston. More broadly, Banfield expresses concern about the extent to which formal, government-led organizations crowd out civil society.

This attempt to organize society along rational lines is a stupendous experiment. Nothing in history promises it will succeed.

Finally, Banfield’s methodology and prose remind us of the devolution of the academy. In all his work, starting with Government Project, Banfield drew his insights from a close reading of life as it is lived. He did not start with theory—about race, class, or gender—and then seek to illustrate it empirically. Like Glazer and Daniel Bell, he was a journalist before being tenured at Harvard. Those who would follow in his footsteps today—and we need them—would not likely be so honored.