The Ant and the Grasshopper #1

by Merrill Ring

If Aesop the slave did write the Ant and the Grasshopper fable, he would today be rightly labeled a conservative, a darling of the right-wing.  For there is no doubt that the tale favors the ant, who labors hard all summer, laying in food for the winter, while the grasshopper enjoys himself; but come the winter the grasshopper then needs the good will of the ant who refuses to give it.

For centuries now the fable has been used by conservatives (by whatever name they called themselves) to justify their ways and attitudes.  And those on the other side of the fence have made reply.  But of course one cannot find any response by the conservatives to the criticism of their ant worship. 

We find today an up-to-date version made familiar in right-wing circles by one of their shrews, Michelle Malkin.  And so we critics of those views need to produce yet another criticism of the fable, thinking to once again negate ant worship, though without hope that it will soon vanish.

The fable creates a world in which there are only two beings: the ant and the grasshopper. “Once there lived an ant and a grasshopper in a grassy meadow.”

We progressives or social democrats or modern liberals must protest those very opening words of the fable. For its aim is precisely to eliminate the social background of human life and to make its moral point as if ants and grasshoppers, and so too human beings, are fully formed atoms without regard to their fellow creatures and their institutions.

The ant in the fable does not live in an anthill and so has no culture to form it and no fellows to support it.  It is a self-made ant.  And equally the grasshopper is to be taken to be cultureless, to be free of any influences on its way of life not deriving from its own natural being.

That is, whatever good or bad accrues to them will be solely and totally a matter of their own doing.  The ant is that paragon of the right, the self-made man who owes nothing to anybody else and is a product solely of his own effort.  The grasshopper, on the other hand, is a lazy lay-about, who could have been providing for his own well-being but instead prefers to do nothing but enjoy himself: no one else is around to share his responsibility for his problems.  He is a self-made failure.

One of the basic tenets of modern liberalism or social democracy (or whatever the outlook is called) is that that picture of human atoms whose characteristics are not at all shaped by others or by the social world in which they find themselves is totally false.  It is disagreement about that picture that creates a fundamental division between conservatives and social democrats.

It is tempting to turn to the important topic of just why modern liberals reject the individualistic assumptions of conservative social theory, to remind ourselves of why it is important to see people as social beings.  But that will have to wait for later.  Ants and grasshoppers are the topic here.

In any grassy meadow, there is not a solitary ant and a solitary grasshopper.  In fact, since ants are highly social and cooperative creatures, even more organized than we liberals can accept as a model for human life, Aesop’s fable must be restructured from the start.  Something like:  “In a grassy meadow was an ant colony.  In the morning, the scouts went out to determine where the ants should spend the day.  A straw boss assigned crews to various parts of the meadow and each unit went off to perform its days’ work, bringing food back to the communal larder in the colony.”

The fable continues and so will this commentary.