From our early years, many of us learned about the perils of sloth and the rewards of industry from the Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” You remember: The grasshopper idles away the summer and pays the penalty when winter comes; meanwhile, the ant, who has spent the same period toiling and accumulating, survives and prospers.
In the 1840s, Karl Marx put a new spin on this legend, transforming the grasshopper into a parasite. As in Aesop, Marx’s ants/workers slave away and create value—but their surplus value is effectively stolen by the grasshoppers/idle rich, who claim the treasure as a reward for their “organizational talent.” In Marx’s rendering of history, this stockpile of surplus value—capital–would become the mechanism for the brutal transformation of civilization during the Industrial Revolution.
Marx’s analysis would be widely adopted by the labor and socialist movements. “Is there aught we have in common with the greedy parasite?” asks the 1915 workers’ anthem, “Solidarity Forever.” Of course not. The workers did all the work, while the plutocrats “have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn.”
Now, Mitt Romney has offered yet another interpretation of the fable: It’s the ants who steal from the productive grasshopper.
In the now-infamous video taken at a private fundraiser, the GOP presidential nominee says that 47% of Americans “believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Rather than laboring away, the ants have become wastrels thanks to the nanny state. Meanwhile, the grasshopper and his ilk provide the initiative, risk-taking, and talent that keep society afloat.
Of course, there’s nothing really new in this script–it dates back to Dickens and beyond. Ronald Reagan gave the story respectable new life in the 1980s, assuring us that the very rich were the truly productive class. That was why “supply side” economics would save society: Reward the top ranks and they will create new industry, showering the rest of us with jobs and wealth.
But thanks are due to Mr. Romney for reminding us that this sort of country-club class consciousness still exists…at least behind closed doors. The grasshopper thanks you too, Mitt.