The term social is wildly overused, most frequently when the word “societal” is required. The point the speaker is trying to make, perhaps, is that something is broadly characteristic of a society, or of a large part of it, not that something is held in common or has been created through a communal process. However, close observation tells us that hardly anything is properly speaking held in common, even when the legal or political form claims that it is so, and that almost nothing is created equally by all individuals in a population.

Knowledge-creation may serve as an example since it is sometimes, indeed often, said to be social. However, it is unlikely ever to be true in the strict sense. Of course, the processes of knowledge creation are frequently, indeed nearly always collaborative, but the parties involved in those collaborations are only a selection from the wider population, both over time and at any one time. Knowledge is rarely if ever fully social, that is completely or overwhelmingly collaborative. I cannot think of a plausible candidate for social knowledge creation in the strict sense, not even language, for it is or should be notorious that there is no natural kind of, say, English, a cairn to which all users have contributed, but only numerous overlapping pools of linguistic competence with correspondences and resemblances between them. A language is not an organism.

Social is an extremely strong, indeed universalist term, implying collective interest or participation across or through the entire population, however that population is to be defined, and neglect of this characteristic accounts for most of the errors in its use. Because of this strength it is to be used very sparingly. For example, we might be tempted say that public health, or national independence has a social dimension, one affecting every individual in the population. But even in these cases, where most would agree it has legitimacy, it should be employed with care. Public health issues do not affect all individuals equally, and may not affect some individuals at all. One might regard such instances as outliers that can be safely put to one side in order to gain insight, and I would not disagree. But it is clear that reflection on the details of claims to sociality tends to erode the rigoristic legitimacy of the term.

Consequently, we can now see why the vague, rhetorical or poetic use of the term only achieves its suasive and elusive power by failing to define the population to which it refers, thus implying without actually claiming and thus obliging the claimant to defend universality of creative participation and entitled interest. In truth, it is all too often not a descriptive term, but a normative one, expressing the wish or the demand that all those addressed should accept sociality and adjust their behaviour accordingly. In other words, it is an act of aspirational or coercive rhetoric.

And very vulnerable rhetoric it is. If we define the populational extent carefully, as we always should, then the magic disappears, and the warm glow may turn to a chill. Often enough, we find ourselves no longer included in the alliance, we are the prey not the predator. For this is the dark truth of rhetorical claims of sociality, namely that they prove to be spurious assertions of entitlement to the work of others, and even at their mildest are more or less subtle calls for a share of a dish in the cooking of which they have played no part. Rather than ask for favour, with all the implied promise of thanks and reciprocity that must accompany it, the speaker demands a share of right and without any recompense. The warmth of the term social barely conceals the threat and indeed the fact of robbery with menaces, and it should be avoided as a general rule. While some degree of more or less common interest most certainly occurs, it deserves explicit demonstration with all exceptions noted, not a suspiciously loose insinuation of unbounded community. As ever, praise undeserved is scandal in disguise.

It is notable that intuitions of transcendence resemble intuitions of free will. Both are strong if elusive, and quite unsupported apart from the felt intuition itself. Perhaps the underlying reasons in both cases are the same.

Our sense of free choice is the fully determined sensation of being at the frontier of the unfolding universe. Similarly, an intuition of moral, aesthetic, or epistemological transcendence is simply the experience of having particular kinds of experiences in those categories.

Transcendence on this view, would be an authentic experience and no delusion. But an experience of what precisely? Is it simply a sufficient conviction of adequacy for some purpose? A moral feeling indicates certainty of our probable interests as affected by our own behaviour and that of others; our aesthetic judgment a certainty that, at least provisionally, we approve this sensation; and our epistemological sensation tells us that we know just enough to act or, as importantly, not to act.

In all cases, it seems that our self-interest is engaged; which is no surprise in general, but will not be what some expect in this instance. Far from being selfless, the intuition of transcendence seems to have its roots in the clearly perceived interest of the organism.

The sun is needed. In the frozen and dark North one must have the congealed sunlight of coal and gas, the buried, cooked and concentrated remnants of stellar energy. With the light surging through my bay windows, even at 14:45 in a British March, I am invigorated, as if in California.

We speak casually of writings having an energy of their own, or having energy pure and plain. If we mean only that they are boisterous, then little is said; but if we mean that they have the potential to create further order, then we are on the way. A volcano is remarkable, because it is dangerous. A candle is dangerous, because it makes books remarkable.

The idea of a written constitution for the United Kingdom is undoubtedly attractive, except for the fact that it must be written by someone. And that person will tend to embed their own interests and susceptibilities, the susceptibilities being particularly dangerous. A person’s interests are narrowly focused and perish with themselves, while their susceptibilities reflect the interests of those around them, and will persist because they are broadly distributed and thus deep-seated. Though not immutable these feelings are very likely to be enduring in the population over time. Indeed, the authorial susceptibilities distorting the composition of a written constitution would embed within the document precisely those problems arising from democracy that such a constitution is intended to guard against. 

In favour of a formal constitution some may point to the American constitution, but it is a false guide, since it is so exceptional. Firstly, the authors were, perhaps by chance, both gifted and learned. It would be difficult to locate such people today, let alone reach agreement to their selection and appointment to the constitutional committee.

Secondly, and far more importantly the authors of the Constitution of the United States were not susceptible to democratic pressure; they wrote in isolation, anticipating but not reacting to the reality of democracy.

It would be all but impossible to replicate that independence at the present time. The United Kingdom might be best advised, therefore, simply to adopt the American constitutional model, which after all, as Maine has shown – in Popular Government (1885) – is the British model as it once was, but greatly improved, and spared the many flaws that British democracy has imposed on it since the late eighteenth century.

Concern about the impact of technology on the value of human labour is nearly always posed as a recent phenomenon. – "Will a computer take your job?" But this is mistaken, since wealth has been created in a predominantly systemic, non-human, fashion for a very long time, increasingly so in the West from the 1200s onwards at the latest. Earlier societies will have seen the process start and stall, alongside sustained growth. Indeed, the declining value of human labour is closely related to the onset of sustained growth, and is probably part of that phenomenon. The writings of Marx, socialism generally, the socialist version of the labour theory of value, all are fighting a rearguard action.

As human labour becomes less and less important both individually and in aggregate to the creation of wealth, politics becomes correspondingly more important, and crucially so once the distribution of societal wealth cannot be left to an approximate determination according to apparent contribution (wages). With politics, modern, all-embracing, all-obsessing politics, the world returns to a status society. Liberalism, then, can be seen as a temporary arrangement appearing in the phase between the stabilization of sustained growth, the 1600s to 1700s in the Netherlands and Britain, and that point where the contribution of most individuals or all in aggregate drops below a level where it is no longer missed when absent, from 1750 onwards, and with increasing clarity from 1850 onwards.

This process is confused in detail by the fact that the nominal and apparent value of labour will be artificially preserved as the visible part of the fairing enclosing that societal mechanism where income is assigned by status. There is a great deal of lag, illusion, and momentum in this matter.

Blowing the smoke aside, we can see that the advent of extreme mechanisation is not a discontinuity precipitating a crisis in society. – It is the latest substantial increment in a process long established, and for which human societies already have remedies and modes of address.

Many, perhaps all of us, are prone to pretend that humans are more valuable to each other as sources of wealth than can easily be justified, this economic fiction being ceremonially useful in dressing an assignment of income that is actually determined quasi-administratively by status. Hardly any of us are net producers.

We can conclude, therefore, that nothing much will really change in the face of more computers and machines; new ways will found of pretending that each and every human contributes substantively and indispensably to the creation of wealth and is therefore rewarded proportionately on that ground. We are already pretending that humans matter; we will go on pretending, only adding more stage business, rhetoric and costume.

A disturbance to this pattern may occur when men and machines compete for resources. To a degree this happens now, in investment choices favouring "plant" over "parlours", but men are still, as far as I can tell, in charge of the allocation and do so to maximise returns to men in the long run. If machines start, perhaps they have already started, to influence allocation in order to maximise returns to machines not men, then something interesting and genuinely threatening to the human species will have happened. Like so many other important changes in systemic societal character, I am prepared to bet that this will creep up on us, if it happens at all.

The overextended state is weak. Small yet strong states and large yet weak ones are to be expected. Eighteenth and nineteenth Century Britain was small but strong. Behemoth states such as Imperial China, Mogul India, Austria-Hungary, Hitlerite Germany perhaps, the USSR eventually, the European Union maybe, all collapse under their own weight, the burden of the administration that claims it is needed to control the underlying population. Too much of the aggregate production is inwardly directed for consumption, leaving little over for outward utilisation and investment in the creation of further wealth.
Thus, the paradox of the United States of America is resolved. This state, the greatest of all behemoths, exhibits the strength of a small state on a gargantuan scale, and it has achieved this miracle because its population has hitherto declined to be controlled, and so reserves more of its capacity for external direction and reinvestment, while at the same time permitting its population the freedom to generate still greater wealth on which the state can draw.
It is not certain that this remarkable balance and consequent achievement can be maintained in the face of rising internal popular pressure for redistribution.

Institutional criticism is the aesthetic equivalent of the planned economy. Rather than leave populational cultural preferences and reactions to the aggregate of individual responses, with all the error and redundancy that this implies, we will have critical planners that teach the appropriate modes of engagement and, through penalising exams, the acceptable judgments.

This trend has deep roots, as do all inclinations to determine globally chaotic and locally complex phenomena according to a rationalized plan with a narrow intellectual base; but the emergence of the main phase at the end of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth, is closely correlated with other similar movements in British thought. Academic literary criticism is about as old as fashionable socialism in Britain.

But planning has in any case a strong aesthetic element. Planners are guilty of that elementary error, the confusion of map and territory. They mistake the plan's informational purity for freedom from error and waste, not appreciating that this is authentic poverty and that opulent redundance is inherent in the real world, and in fact desirable, being part of the wealth of opportunity that mounts what defences can be brought against changing circumstances and emergency.

Furthermore, insofar as planners are able to enforce the plan's purity, they weaken that society since it will lack the variety of intellectual content – some of it error in the prevailing contexts – that makes it able to respond to the changes and the crises that emerge in spite of the plan. Mistakes can be saved by the passage of time, and become unexpectedly valuable.

The concept of the excluded context is also relevant here. In aesthetic situations we know that it is possible to guillotine off or edit out information that pollutes the tableau with ancestors or consequences, or with tediously clarifying detail. The framing of the picture, the temporal territory before and after the start and end of even the most spiritual of novels, the lost behavioural soil from which the psycho-plant grows and produces a lyric blossom, all these contribute to its qualities. Similarly, the 'plan' suffers from a tendency to presume a static, atemporal society, from which external shocks are excluded by simple neglect.

This suggestion, that economic planning has an aesthetic element, is a sharp edged blade, and not to be neglected due to an apparent or superficial distinction, namely that the dismal science is notably lacking in joy, though that is also true. All philosophic systems, and socio-economic planning is an attempt to apply a worldview like any systemic philosophy, have their aesthetic attractions, not least that they offer the reader the potential of taking an intellectual purchase on a world that otherwise slips through our nervous fingers.

Like a pure philosophical system, the plan must be couched at a level of abstraction so high that it can claim to universal descriptive, explanatory, and predictive power. It is this level of abstraction that renders aesthetics open to error, for some phenomena are so complex that abstract accounts are only very approximately true, however pleasing they may seem to be. And in the realm of economics this approximate nature is more or less fatal, since micro-economic phenomena are a fertile source of developments that may lead to systemwide transformations rendering the plan redundant.

The aesthetic attraction of fiction, that it presents depleted, informationally poor, but hyper-integrated networks of causal relations with little or no redundancy, is also true of socio-economic plans. Moreover, just as this scheme is shielded by arbitrary termination from the problem of infinite extension (no novel need or should have an end), all plans have a state in which no further change is deemed possible that is worthy of notice. History comes to an end but, paradoxically, they all live happily ever after.

Still, it should never be forgotten that novels are written for the satisfaction of those outside the story, for the author and the reader. Plans, too, are aesthetic in this respect; they serve the interests of those making the plans and of those observing them. They are a joy to behold, rich in links and satisfyingly comprehensible, unplagued by clutter, unknowns, unknowables, redundancy, and, most delightful of all, they have a sense of an ending, an arbitrary termination that is dressed as a necessary and inevitable stop. – Peace, stability, the just society. History comes to an end.

From my garden, I can hear the singers at the nearby music festival. As ever (and more clearly because the words – distracting words – are quite inaudible as distinct terms) the undertone, the over-current of the lyrics is a keening appeal for pity, on the exhibited ground of manifest suffering.

And in spite of the fact that young men seem to dominate and crowd that field, it is the female voice that characterises this genre. For the male voice is compelled to remould itself as feminine in order to qualify and compete.

Little else can be heard. Birdsong aside.

Is naturalistic fiction unavoidably sentimental?

Taking my definition of sentimentality, it seems that it must be. Fiction presents a narrative, and makes an implicit claim for significance beyond that which can be sustained with available evidence. This is always true; no plausible claim can be made for the significance of a fictional naturalistic narrative; it is by definition historically false, and as a whole has reference only to itself; and in so far as elements within it are natural it is redundant, since the world from which it selects is there for all to observe in the raw, and can be drawn on to form propositions that serve understanding of that world, rather than drawn on by an attention seeking writer to create a fiction for which claims of high significance are, absurdly, to be made.

Naturalistic fiction is irredeemable.