From the Archives: The Conservative Conception of Work

From the Archives

Originally published in Progressive Democracy in 2011-2013; revised version here from The Ant and the Grasshopper: A Response from the Left, Merrill Ring (2017)

A central conservative objection to any Universal Basic Income program is that it is appealing because people are at bottom lazy. To be given significant sums of money without having to work for it is the dream of all layabouts. For the conservative, work is life and to not work is a crime against the human condition and deserves punishment. That conception was expressed long ago in Aesop’s fable of The Ant and The Grasshopper.

The Conservative Conception of Work
By Merrill Ring

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 the ant.  So, do not take the above passage, which is the picture of Ant’s life and labors, lightly.

The conservative’s aim in the fable is to express first that the ant is virtuous without blemish and in that excellence owes nothing to anyone else (except perhaps implicitly to the farmer, who is not a conservative on this matter since he does not insist that every grain of wheat is rightfully his because he has produced it).  Moreover, the ant is to be taken as the model of the good human life. What does the ant do? Work. Work in this picture 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 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 like, 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 putting nut A on bolt B, with 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 and thus our lives, to make our labors unlike the ant’s; third it is possible to diminish the extent of work in our lives so we do not live like the ant but can create a fuller and richer human life.

Let me point out one further thing about the fable. Notice that the translation above refers to the ant as “she”. In the new conservative Michelle Malkin’ version the ant is “he”. Now I have no idea what, in the original Greek, the pronoun is – and I’m not going to find out. What is interesting is that conservatives vacillate in their way 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, is repetitious and not, in itself, of any interest to anyone.

 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 the 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.
However, that work is a central feature of human lives is not anything that 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.

Do Michelle Malkin and company really think that they themselves 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 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 those now.

The human analogs to the ant – where we ignore its postulated absolute solitude – are likely to form unions, to 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 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.

Compare how the conservative thinks of the situation of the ant in Aesop’s fable with what a progressive, a modern liberal, would say. 

To the conservative, Ant is a hero for grindingly going on, day after day, with her/his labor.  Work, conceived of as misery, is part of the very constitution of the universe and so it is something about which nothing can be done.

To the progressive such obnoxious styles of work as that of the assembly line, the sweatshop, the slave, the salary-man, child-labor and so on – the models for the conservative picture of work - are, in their various ways, capable of improvement, even elimination.  It is assumed that we, both the progressive and the downtrodden workers, must rise up against that kind of labor, must join together to make their work and their lives better. 

The conservative prefers hero-worship – the Heroic Ant - to joining together to eliminate or change obnoxious types of labor.   (The ant of course has no fellows to band together with – and not even an employer to rise up against.) Again, while it is not part of conservative practice to actually praise workers who have lives like that of Ant, they ought to be doing that as a consequence of their outlook.

The failure to love those who labor shows that it is the literary expression of the view that they love, not actual people who earn their daily bread in such ways.

The number of ways in which working life has improved for human analogs of the ant is too vast to catalog here (even if I could.)  Let me insert something here from Charles Bayer.

Whether you are a fan of unions or you are not, all of us are far better off today because of the hard-fought victories they have won.  Do you covet your right to work-free weekends? Then you must give organized labor the credit.  American business did not agree to a forty-hour week out of a generous spirit. This right was the product of hard-fought organized power.

The lives of Americans (and Europeans and no doubt others too) are much better today because we progressives have supported and worked for changes in the nature of work, joining with those who do the work and who band together to change the way it is conducted.  We progressives in solidarity with those who engage in the work have together achieved changes that the conservative conception of the place of work in the world assumes to be not possible. 

The conservative conception of work embodied in the person (?) of Ant is flawed in at least three ways: it rests upon a picture of the nature of work (the model is the slave, the house maid or the assembly line worker) that is too narrow and thus does not accurately portray the variety of kinds of work that human beings engage in; it also represents work as unchangeable drudgery and refuses to see the vast improvements made in many people’s work life over the past couple of hundred years and the possibilities for even more.

The third failure is this:  the ant has no other life than work.  In this conservative picture, life is work, there is nothing worth remarking on outside it.  The ant has no social life, no television even, nothing to do after the daily fetching and carrying but wait for the next day with maybe a little laundry and house-cleaning tossed in.

The progressive vision includes the idea that there are other things in life than work that are humanly valuable and which need to be fostered both individually and socially.  The liberal vision even includes the possibility that the work might someday be made not just less onerous (which has been happening now for a couple of centuries) but become not even the central feature of human life, to be replaced in importance by those other activities ignored or slighted by the conservative mind.  It was one of the glories of the 1960’s that that possibility was actively discussed.  It is a theme that needs to be taken up again by progressives. 

There are those who say ‘Wait until we have returned to a settled economic condition before we start considering lives without work.’  There is something to that:  however, all those many people who presently are long-term unemployed, maybe now permanently so, might be brought to see that there is life not just after but without work (if you can get enough to eat.)