The Ant and the Grasshopper #3: The Conservatives Conception of Work

By Merrill Ring


Why is the Ant in Aesop’s fable a hero or heroine of conservatives?

There are several reasons – reasons I shall be exploring as this commentary on the fable continues. One I have already pointed out is that the Ant is a solitary, living in no social order and having no help and companionship. The conservative picture embodied in the Ant is that we humans should be, and heroic humans actually are, complete individuals, shaped only by oneself and relying upon no one else to make one’s way through life.

But there is a second reason, something that we progressives tend to lose sight of. The conservative has, to its mind, a very important conception of work and of its place in human lives: the Ant exemplifies that conception. We progressives tend to overlook such that fact: for we do not have a corresponding and competing conception. Rather, it is the criticism of that conception that is important to our outlook.

Recall how the Ant spends her/his time, at least during the productive summer months. “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.”

I suspect that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve remains behind how conservatives see our relation to work. Since the original pair, representatives of humanity, were booted from Paradise, they, we, are condemned to a life of hard toil. “Cursed shall be the ground because of you; in sorrow you shall eat of it all the days of your life. And thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plant of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground.” (Genesis, 3:17-19)

Work, nasty in nature as the conservatives see it, is a central feature of human lives.

Of course, there are always some people who for various reasons (the pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve, the village idiot as well as the Duke, the kept woman, those with large inherited wealth, and the devil of the conservatives, the layabout (see the Grasshopper in the fable)) do not work. However, overwhelmingly people (including the traditional housewife doing her unremunerated tasks) do and must work. So first of all the Ant in the fable is iconic for conservatives as it expresses that understanding of human life.
That, though, is not anything liberal, progressive, even radical opponents of conservativism deny.

What the conservative wildly overdoes, and what does merit scorn, is the comparison of very many human lives to the Ant. The model for the Ant’s labors is the slave (which is what author of the fable was) or the assembly line worker, a very limited selection of the working lives of humans. Note: conservatives have not been found applauding the heroism of the assembly line worker or the sweatshop worker, though they do celebrate that kind of life when it comes to the Ant. Is that not inconsistency?

Progressives must recognize this amount of truth in the conservative picture: there is much in most people’s work that is drudgery, boring and destructive of the best in us. However, no matter how difficult work is generally, some employments are worse than others: and the fable chooses the most plodding of all as showing the real nature of work and of what it is to be human.

Does Michelle Malkin and company really think that they are like the Ant as they go about earning their daily bread? How many people do they know whose actual working lives are comparable to the Ant? I wager: None. Yet they seemingly love the Ant and generalize wildly from its life.

We should all recall that the left has (at least) two very excellent pieces of writing which do talk about the working lives of ordinary people: Studs Terkel’s magnificent Working and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed. We need to re-read these now.

The human analogs to the Ant – where we ignore its postulated absolute solitude – are likjely to form unions, have formed unions, where workers can act to overcome the dreariness and worse of their working conditions. Do the conservatives applaud these attempts to rid working people of drudgery and worse? Of course not – such joint self-help organizations are anathema to the conservative. For the true hero is the Ant who does not indulge in joining with others to help each other.

And that brings us to the second item in the conservative conception of work: the idea that work is always to be like the Ant’s labors (remember the curse placed on Adam and Eve) and we must not try to make it better. But that is a tale for the next installment.