The Ant And The Grasshopper #5

Can we imagine human lives without work?  The conservative fable says no.  But it may be a practical problem and not a theoretical issue for those large numbers of people whom the Great Recession has made unemployed and perhaps unemployable.

By Merrill Ring

The conservative conception of work embodied in the person (?) of the 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, work is life, 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 other 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.)

This completes the critical analysis of the Ant in the fable – a question remains that I shall defer until the very end.  Do contemporary conservatives, including those who are resurrecting Aesop’s fable, really believe the conception of work found in the story?  Or is just their hatred of the Grasshopper that inclines them to mouth a more traditional conservative idea of the nature and place of work in human life?  I have my suspicions that it is really the latter, that the so-called present conservatives are not really traditional conservatives at all.  However, I will reserve discussion of that until the rest of the fable has been looked into in later installments.