Book Review from the December 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
Demystifying Social Statistics, edited by Irvine. Miles and Evans, Pluto Press, 1979.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the census forms that we completed this year contained questions like: are you a member of the capitalist or working class; give an account of all the property you posses and state the income derived from it; if an employer, state the rate of exploitation operating in your firm? So that we could refer directly to one set of official facts to support our contention that social problems arise because ownership of the means of living is private and profit-dominated, while production is public and necessarily co-operative. But official statistics are commodities tailored to meet the demands of capitalist society. One effect of this is that they mask the existence of the capitalist class and are silent on the source of all wealth; all of which is well-described in that piece of this book called The Poverty of Wealth Statistics.
If you pick and choose you should find something of interest in these twenty-two chapters. For instance, the piece on how official statistics are produced is fascinating and informative It leaves an impression of a bunch of moles boring from within the government statistical service in a way designed to make a Daily Telegraph leader writer see red and sensitive people weep over the stultifying boredom imposed upon statistical producers by rambling bureaucratic procedures.
It’s pleasant to record that though most of the authors are academics they do not shrink from drawing socialist conclusions:
We would replace accountancy in terms of money and profit by accountancy in terms of social needs. We would replace the definition of social goals by those at the top of the bureaucratic pyramids, by democratic self-control over all collective activities. We would then require new ways of measuring our needs and goals, which expressed their great variety rather than reduce them to money values or standards imposed from above. (ibid p.36.)
The question is - how do we get a society like that? By political action allied to knowledge and understanding say the authors. Statistics can play a part here, for they are not just commodities produced in government departments, but aids to knowledge (and to damned lies of course). Just what you can construct with statistics does not depend solely upon your politics, for a major theme of this book is that statistics bear the mark of the social conditions of their production. The Registrar-General’s definition of class is tied to dimensions of social stratification by income, but does not provide any explanation, nor much data, on how class inequality is maintained. While the official lumping together of shareholding wealth by capitalists with workers’ possessions, like cars, mortgages and household effects, ignores the obvious difference that workers in general cannot use their meagre possessions to generate more wealth, while capitalists use their wealth to employ workers who create profits.
These then are some of the marks that statistics bear. A good deal of this book is concerned with re-writing statistical information for radical re-use, so that it may bear interpretations other than those dear to the hearts of government departments. The problems involved in doing so are somewhat overblown by the authors and this takes us to the heart of the matter. Can there be a socialist statistical science? Only to a limited extent until society has been revolutionised, as there is a conflict over reforming the statistical practice of government departments and trying to bring about a socialist revolution. The most effective way of ensuring that socialism never comes about would be for socialists to strive to reform the civil service and fall into the bottomless pit of fabianism. So, as far as socialists are concerned, over facts and figures we “simply have to make do with what is available” (ibid, p. 371). Not a startlingly new conclusion for a book of four hundred pages.
Though much of the argument in this volume goes with the grain of the socialist ease, yet a flaw runs throughout, coming out most clearly in the contributions by John Krige, where he says, in effect, that socialism can never become a science:
In contrast to the natural world, social reality is constructed in and by people’s more or less conscious beliefs and practices. Criticism of a natural scientific theory in the light of facts or a rival theory, while directed at the beliefs of those who hold it. leaves the object of the theory (the natural world) as it is. On the other hand, the object of the social sciences is the same as that which is being criticised, namely, people's beliefs and practices. Thus in criticising those beliefs and practices one aims to change both them and the social order which they reflect and reproduce, (ibid. P-60.)
A feature of twentieth century capitalism has been the amount of criticism it can absorb and the amount of reforming zeal it can incorporate, while remaining unchanged in its essentials. Contrary to the last part of the above quotation it is only criticism of workers’ beliefs that aims to stimulate the practice of democratic revolution, which aims to change the social order. Movements like women’s liberation, societies for social responsibility in science and radical statistics groups could well get much of what they want, yet see the current social relations corrupt female and male equality in sordid legislation and contracts; bewilder responsible science with Windscale farces; and obfuscate the best wealth and poverty statistics imaginable.
The only movement that would be proof against this corruption is a world majority of workers determined to get socialism. Once such a body comes into being, then the world changes, capitalism will be viewed as socialists have viewed it all along. But if the socialist majority never is achieved, then what capitalism is remains an open question, to be fought over by Milton Friedman, the Archbishop of Canterbury and all the rest.
The search for finality, for the perfect case about the physical or social world, using only completely demystified statistical data is a vain quest. Consider - would any such truth ever stop scientists from devising questioning experiments? Consider too the possibility that, when socialism is established, historian of capitalism will still wrangle among themselves over things like - 'was the post-war inflation caused by an excess issue of incontrovertible paper currency and could the various governments have ended inflation whenever they liked, or were they prisoners of their own spending policies? The details of what capitalism was are not all to be decided by a socialist revolution. So what? For years now socialists have possessed the information, the arguments and the strategy for bringing capitalism down. All we lack are numbers. This book suggests reasons why we haven’t got the numbers but they aren’t the right ones.’
B. K. McNeeney