The Ant and The Grasshopper #2: Work

by Merrill Ring

So Ant is alone in the grass meadow (ignoring for now the grasshopper), having no friends or family, life, no institutional framework, no history. What kind of life does she (or he) have? Work.

All day long the ant would work hard, collecting grains of wheat from the farmer's field far away. She would hurry to the field every morning, as soon as it was light enough to see by, and toil back with a heavy grain of wheat balanced on her head. She would put the grain of wheat carefully away in her larder, and then hurry back to the field for another one. All day long she would work, without stop or rest, scurrying back and forth from the field, collecting the grains of wheat and storing them carefully in her larder.”

It is impossible to understand the conservative hatred (yes hatred) for welfare, for transfer payments to the unemployed, especially to those with long term unemployment but even to those who have a shorter spell out of work, without understanding the conservative attitude toward work. And that attitude is best expressed in the tale of Ant.  So do not take the above passage, which is the picture of the ant’s labors, lightly.

The conservative aim in the fable is to express first that the Ant is virtuous and and in that excellence owes nothing to anyone else (except perhaps implicitly to the farmer who does not insist that every grain of wheat is rightfully his because he has produced it).  Moreover, theAnt is to be taken as the model of the good human life. What does the Ant do? Work. Work is what it is to be human.

Further there is a conception of what work is that is embodied in the Ant’s story, especially in the paragraph above, a conception that is pure conservative doctrine. Work, what life is all about on this view, is incessant, repetitive and uninteresting in itself: in a word, work is grim drudgery. And as work is the core of life, life is ….

The dwarves’ song ‘ Just whistle while you work’ is complete anathema to the conservatives. It is impossible, they hold, to be cheerful in work and life – or if you are, as are the dwarves, that is ‘false consciousness’, an attempt to hide from oneself the reality of what it is like to live and work.

But is work really incessant, repetitive and uninteresting?

That is an accurate description of what it was, and is, like to work on an orthodox assembly line, say in a Henry Ford factory. The autos being assembled come past you on the line and you have one and only one task: to see that nut N is put on bolt B as each auto moves on down the line as they do inexorably. And you have to rise early in the morn, at least six days a week, and put in a ten hour day doing nothing but that, no breaks except a brief lunch stop. That is how you spend your life for, say, 40 years.

There are three things that must be said in reply to the conservative story: much work is not like being on an old fashioned line, is not like the Ant’s labors; secondly, that contrary to the conservative view, it is possible to make things better, to improve the nature of work, to make our labors unlike the Ant’s; third it is possible to diminish the extent of work so we do not live like the Ant but create a fuller and richer human life.

Next time let me take up those matters. But first let me point out one further thing about the fable. Notice that the translation aboverefers to the Ant as “she”. In the new conservative Michelle Malkin version the Ant is ‘he’. Now I have no idea what, in theoriginal Greek, the pronoun is – and I’m not going to find out. What is interesting is that the conservatives vacillate in their ways of telling the story, in their account of the gender of the Ant. That is one sign that they are talking of work, any work, all work, women’s work, man’s work: whoever you are, whatever you do, work is never done, repetitious and not, in itself, of any interest to anyone.