This article was originally published in Fall 1995 and has recently been converted into HTML text format in September 2022; please excuse any grammatical errors. This piece reflects the editorial standards of the time.
Chaos or Community? Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics
Boston: South End Press 1995
Holly Sklar is on a mission to get readers to recognize that we need not be taken in by the “snake oil” of scapegoating which is so abundantly peddled these days. Don’t swallow it, she writes. The politicized lies mask a growing accumulation of wealth and continuing concentration of power in the hands of a tiny few.
To convince us that mere are antidotes to the snake oil, Sklar presents a multifaceted analysis of how the political center has shifted dramatically to the right. She points out that views once considered extremist Far Right are now considered ordinary, views once considered centrist are now considered ultraliberal, and views genuinely to the left are largely ignored in the mass media. The agenda of ultra-conservative political elites is being walked into existence as policy change. As a result, Sklar says, “Demagoguery is threatening democracy.”
In urging us to fight back, Sklar takes apart layers of misinformation and disinformation. The nine chapters with titles such as “Full of Unemployment”, “Cycle of Unequal Opportunity”, “Greed Surplus, Democracy Deficit” look critically at persistent impoverishment, downsizing, the use of contingent workers, outsourcing to cheaper labor outside the US, “global webs” and global loan sharks, intentional unemployment, myths about welfare, mandatory discrimination and much more.
At first reading, Chaos or Community is slow going, but do stick with it—it gets easier as one reads along. And there are incentives. Throughout, the reader comes across refreshingly insightful comparisons, metaphorical statements, Matt Wuerker cartoons (excellent, as always) and visual graphs of data. One example I hear myself speaking over and over again: In the US, “[p]eople who take care of animals in zoos make an average $2,500 more a year than child care teachers.” (p. 93)
Some of what Sklar provides is familiar. What makes the book so useful is the way she combines, translates and presents the information and arguments. She provides new ways to demonstrate that, for example, poverty is increasingly entrapping young families, even some with two wage-earners present. The rates of poverty among married couples under 30 years of age over two decades are compelling: 1973, 8%. 1989, 17%. 1990, 20%
In places, she paints vivid word-pictures. Some of her analysis reverses stereotypes effectively, as in her discussion of the “upper-class cycle of dependency on unequal opportunity.” (p. 101) She echoes Jonathan Kozol’s discernment that there is no academic study of the pathological detachment of the very rich and their pattern of seceding from concerns and responsibilities about housing for all, public schools and the like.
Sklar includes pithy quotes from those of a less-than, liberal persuasion as well—William Bennett, for example, is quoted on the typical cocaine user as white male full-time worker from the suburbs in a section on “Coloring the Drug War,” part of a chapter aptly titled “Locking Up ‘Surplus’ Labor.”
The book provides a number of reinforcing facts for the reader who is cynical about the motives of the managers of the US economy. For instance, Sklar quotes Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker as stating in October 1979 that “the standard [of living] of the average American has to decline.” And so it has.
Other instructive and useful “soundbites” include: wage discrimination in the US for women is worse than in other westernized countries, with the exception of Japan (p. 92), the term “workfarce” best characterizes the rhetoric about ending welfare without substantively ending poverty, the growing dependence of local governments on gambling revenues is among the indicators of increasing chaos, and proportionately more infants die before their first birthday in the US than in 20 other countries. In Sklar’s words: “If the US government were a parent, it would be guilty of child abuse.” (p. 15)
Sklar does factor in the “intransigence of racism,” naming the attack on affirmative action as the “slander” of people of color, and detailing the cost of being a person or family of color. Especially helpful are statistics on how downsizing disproportionately affects Blacks.
Despite its hard-hitting analysis and useful, accessible information, Chaos or Community has one important shortcoming. The book would have been stronger if Sklar had displayed a deeper understanding of the legislated racial discrimination embedded in the social welfare system devised by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Because that system shaped today’s system, a thorough discussion is needed of FDR’s deliberately-structured dual system, which assured support for the industrial working class but not for agricultural workers. At that time, African Americans were predominantly agricultural workers. As described in an excellent book by Jill Quadagno titled The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty, (NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), this dual system effectively placed African Americans outside the welfare system.
Sklar places little hope in the Clinton Administration. In fact, her disdain for Clinton’s approaches is explicit: “It is as if Franklin Roosevelt talked New Deal rhetoric and continued the policies of Herbert Hoover.” (p. 146)
While Sklar does cite alternatives, particularly in her last chapter, her emphasis is not on the usual list of shoulds/oughts/musts- such as community loan funds, different concepts of property rights, or simpler lifestyles. Her intent is to get her readers to confront the ideological emulsion that is killing us.
Accolades are due Holly Sklar for cutting through the confusions and complexities that are contemporary economics, and for urging us on to counter the ideology of the right. Use her text to strengthen your arguments for the restructuring of an income support system to: 1) eradicate poverty, 2) ensure authentic economic security, and 3) prevent the impoverishment of anyone. We, too, can be political “wordsmiths”.- Loretta J. Williams