Current Affairs

Maxwell Singletary

The Socialist Ant

“Let us not put the ‘ant’ in ‘ignorant’.”

At first, you only see one. You kneel down, look closer: an ant. It is scurrying along your driveway in pursuit of some invisible goal. Then you see another. And another. Each one tap-tap-tapping its antennae on the cement, following a chemical trail laid by its sisters. Fascinated and amused, you observe these tiny workers with minute lives that seem so different from your own. Then, shifting your view a little further along toward their apparent destination, right at the edge of the pavement and your well-manicured lawn, you come upon it. A mass of undulating, swarming insect bodies. One on top of the other, legs gripping bodies, bodies gripping legs. Moving together as if controlled by the mind of a single organism–or some mindless Borgian will–the pile of ants is voraciously deconstructing what formerly resembled three double-stuffed Oreo cookies. The writhing insect horde consumes them rapidly, working in sync. Working to sustain the colony. Working, working, working.

The image of the ant primarily as a worker has persisted for millennia and repeatedly appears in disparate cultures across the world. The Hebrew scripture Proverbs 6:6 compels the reader to “go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise!” Greek storyteller Aesop’s antsiest fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, derives from the working ant the moral that, “it is best to prepare for the days of necessity.” A Mexican proverb cautions that, “an ant on the move does more than a dozing ox.” Above all else, ants work

What can we, as humans, learn from the most proletarian of all animals? I propose that the beauty of a truly socialist society is to be found in the ways of the ant, when properly understood. But first, in light of the apparently mindless insect horde you may find occupying your driveway, we must confront the leading alternative. Are ants in fact a terrifying representation of authoritarianism? Are ants… fascists?

They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and myrmecology (the study of ants) is no exception. Superficial observations of ant colonies may indeed suggest more fascistic tendencies. As far as ant scientists–myrmecologists–can surmise, ant workers do not get to choose the work they do for their colony. Dissent, such as it might occur among ants, is simply not tolerated. The individual spirit, any individual will, appears suppressed, with work unto death the fate of colony members. A soldier ant is born a soldier and must die a soldier. A worker ant is born a worker and must die a worker. A queen ant is born a queen and must die a queen.

Such societal regimentation and perceived lack of any individual spirit–under a monarch no less!–not unreasonably leads some to conclude that ants are our fascistic cousins in the insect world. Intellectual heavyweight and rightwing heartthrob Ronald Reagan, in his infamous 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing,” paints ant societies in the dull colors of authoritarian misery:

“You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down—[up] man’s old—old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.”

The ant heap of totalitarianism! That certainly does seem ominous. Reagan shares this view with English author T.H. White who, in The Book of Merlyn, describes the ant thusly: Formica est exemplo magni laboris (“The ant is an example of great industry”). Sounds good, right? Wait until you hear what happens next: Merlyn turns Arthur into an ant in order to instruct him through lived experience. All of his fellow ants–along with Arthur himself–are known only by a number, language is largely reduced to “done” or “not done,” and the entrance to the colony is marked with a sign that reads “EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY.” At the head of the mindless working colony is an authoritarian queen, and work commands are dictated to Ant-Arthur directly via a “voice in his head” (presumably communicated via antennae). Just when his ant colony is on the precipice of total war with another colony, Ant-Arthur is, to his relief, returned to the human realm.

Propagandists like Reagan and White would have you believe that the life of the ant is terrible. Monotonous, drab, and, worst of all, lacking in individual freedom. Consigned to a life of endless work, the collective will of an ant colony is portrayed as monstrous as it is relentless and powerful–easy pickings for films like Them!, Phase IV, and Empire of the Ants. Perhaps some of our horror derives from an uncomfortable perceived similarity between an ant’s life and ours. The British writer Gerald Brenan could very well have been on to something when he wrote that “[w]e are closer to the ants than to the butterflies. Very few people can endure much leisure.” Most of us immersed in U.S. culture proclaim a love for individual freedom and exhibit a disgust toward allegedly mindless creatures like ants. Meanwhile, indoctrinated into a Protestant work ethic and the pursuit of the illusory American Dream of hierarchical social advancement—a 2017 Harvard study found that the chances of “moving on up” from the bottom quintile of earners to the top quintile is 50 percent lower than Americans think—we sacrifice most of our waking hours to behemoth corporations. We have replaced fulfilling work that serves the common good with exploited labor that serves only a bleak set of corporate interests. 

To be sure, the ways of the ant can be jarring, and it may be unwise to import into human society everything that we find among ant societies. In some species, a worker that contracts a disease will be forcibly removed from the colony to protect the wellbeing of the whole society. In weaver ants, even larvae are put to work in a form of child labor, with the adult workers using larval silk to bind leaves together and form nest structures in trees. Ant societies’ decisions are determined through chemical pseudo-communication, rather than anything at all resembling reasoned debate.

Art by Maxwell Singletary

But let us not put the “ant” in “ignorant.” It would come as a shock to the propagandists surveyed above–but not, of course, to Current Affairs subscribers–that the image of Formica est exemplo magni laboris is rather overstated.

It turns out that according to the Protestant-capitalist work ethic, many members of ant societies are abject sloths. Recent work on Temnothorax rugatulus ants, by Daniel Charbonneau and colleagues, has established that many so-called workers do not actually do much work. Colony activity is instead characterized by cycles of labor, with variation in how often any given worker is committed to any laborious task. Some “workers” may simply be a reserve force whose only purpose is to fill in any gaps should overall worker numbers fall below a certain level. At most other times, they are inactive, doing close to nothing. It is in fact believed to be common across colonies of different social insects that as many as 50 percent of workers are inactive at any one time. Historians of human work life before the Industrial Revolution—when eight hours of labor a day was considered a lot, and even peasants enjoyed several months’ worth of holidays—should find something familiar in these insect societies characterized by frequent breaks and periods of inactivity across large swathes of the workforce.

This unexpected fact about ant colonies echoes the Marxist slogan, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The colony does not require constant activity from all workers at all times. The average person growing up in the United States, acculturated to a system of ceaseless alienated labor, might consider such inactivity the most, well, alien feature of ant colonies. Even people in more enlightened societies may be inclined to agree. Spanish essayist and novelist Miguel de Unamuno is certainly in this camp, as shown by his spiteful eruption of interspecies aggression in Mist: A Tragicomic Novel: “The ant, bah! The most hypocritical of all animals. All that he does is to walk about and make us believe that he is working.” Similarly, a century before the publication of research on “lazy” ants, the Canadian-American actor and comedian Marie Dressler presciently, if unintentionally, previewed a better world when she mused, “If ants are such busy workers, how come they find the time to go to all the picnics?” 

Then again, who wouldn’t like to devote less of their life to brain-numbing toil, and more of it to attending picnics in the park? By investigating ants’ lives in their totality, we begin to see the ant as socialist—and ant colonies as positive images of what human societies may become (and in some ways once were, prior to industrialization). Ironically, the Jewish proverb’s command to “go to the ant, O sluggard” commends an enlightened conception of human work as a more limited feature of our fundamental identity.

What about the authoritarian ant queen, oppressively ruling over Her subjects with an iron tarsus? While in some species the queen may exert a degree of chemical control over reproduction by suppressing egg-laying behavior in the worker caste, the label “queen” is largely a monarchic misnomer. Ant “queens” are, for the most part, simply the reproductive unit of the colony, with day-to-day decision-making (where to forage for food, as one important example) instead driven by emergent processes that arise from both the individual choices and collective will of the workers. Each worker that emerges from her colony to forage initially seeks food on her own, laying a chemical trail to alert her sisters to the location of a discovered food source. Over time, through the relative strengthening of trails to food sources that are both more abundant and nearer to the colony than others, the collective “chooses” to forage at better food sources (occasionally making mistakes along the way, of course). Contrary to the images conjured up by Reagan and T.H. White, the ant society functions far more like a grassroots democracy than a totalitarian dictatorship.

Ant sociality, organized through bottom-up decision-making, is as anti-patriarchal as you should now be expecting. To the extent that patriarchy fundamentally relies on the maintenance of hierarchies (sorry, lobsters!), this may not be very surprising. But it is also the case that all workers in ant colonies–that is, all members of the decision-making body of the colony–are female. Gender differentiation, even if ants could theoretically conceive of such a concept, would be highly unlikely to exist in any ant society, as males are generally produced only once a year, live for about a day, mate, and then die. Notably, while ant colonies are not patriarchal, neither are they matriarchal: no female ant, even the “queen,” serves as a true organizational head. Driven by neither a leader nor a commitment to a hierarchy, ant sociality is instead characterized by a dedication to community needs, whatever they may be and by whomever they are needed.

The positive, healthy sociality that binds ant colonies together has received attention from human luminaries over generations. Aristotle, in The History of Animals, links ants to humanity via shared sociality, both as “social creatures” that “have some one common object in view,” a feature that is unique even among “all creatures that are gregarious.” In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates instructs Cebes that the happiest people are those who model the ants, bees, and wasps as “social and disciplined creature[s]” and thus become “decent citizens.” Like Aristotle and Plato, the philosopher Kanye West–before he ever donned a MAGA hat–spoke favorably of ant sociality in a lecture at Oxford University, observing that “people say it takes a village to raise a child. People ask me how my daughter is doing. She’s only doing good if your daughter’s doing good. We’re all one family. We have the ability to approach our race like ants, or we have the ability to approach our race like crabs.” (Two related ant-ecdotes: Both Khloé and Kourtney Kardashian once took to Twitter to ask if ants have dicks [they do], and the Daily News reported that fire ants could be used to help Kim Kardashian’s psoriasis. It is best to keep up with the Kardashians if only to learn more about ants!)

Could the spirit of the ant, rather than instilling in us a sense of disgusted horror, instead propel us toward a more beautiful, socialist state of international solidarity and flourishing existence? The opportunity we have to learn from the ant was not lost on Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, as expressed in his book on living a meaningful life:

“In fact ants, to cite just one example, work unselfishly for the community; we humans sometimes do not look good by comparison. We are supposed to be higher beings, so we must act according to our higher selves.”

The extreme individualism promoted as a fundamental virtue in the United States warps our perceptions of collective goods and communal goodness, manufacturing a misguided national revulsion at socialism and ant societies alike. Both are unfortunately perceived as destructive forces that limit societal goods, whether that be technological development or the wooden rafters in a suburban home. Yet ants have proven that an integrated, communal existence can be highly successful–there are over 13,000 ant species that are currently known to science, and ants are dominant or conspicuously present across nearly every continent on the planet (Antarctica, despite its name, is the one exception). Ants, which are technically a subset of wasps, likely evolved over 120 million years ago, and have survived and thrived up to and through the modern day. We humans do not look good by comparison, indeed!

Two of the most influential myrmecologists of this generation, E.O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler, highlighted that the “competitive edge” that has led to the worldwide success of the ants is their “highly developed, self-sacrificial colonial existence.” Following this observation, they opined that “[i]t would appear that socialism really works under some circumstances. Karl Marx just had the wrong species.” In my view, the first sentence is a deep insight, but the second fails to capture the potential of human societies to move beyond a constraining capitalist framework. If ants are seen solely in terms of their identity as “workers,” which we have already discovered is something of an oversimplification, then perhaps Wilson and Hölldobler are correct. But it is a capitalist myth that human worth is reducible to economic productivity, and so too is it a myth that human inspiration from ant life is limited to their productive work ethic. 

South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba sees the power of the ant in spiritual rather than utilitarian terms, writing that “I look at an ant and I see myself: A native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit.” Uyghur civil rights activist Rebiya Kadeer derives similar inspiration from individual ant persistence, motivated by a fable her father used to tell her about a tenacious little ant and an egregiously skeptical bird. Individual strength, not simply communal success, is found among the ants. And what Wilson and Hölldobler term “self-sacrificial colonial existence” could also be termed “mutual care” or simply “love.” Why should we confine such behaviors and social structures to the anthill? The ant colony is an image not of fascism or authoritarianism, but rather of communal, socialist living where individuals are born with the innate belief–one that is highly attuned to reality–that all in a society rely on each other to some degree.

Is it a fool’s errand to try and build more ant-like, socialist human societies? While we can derive both individual and collective inspiration from a holistic understanding of ants, it is of course true that humans are not ants, and do not share as deeply an ant’s innate sense of mutual reliance and community. Ants may not even have any kind of “sense” that we would recognize, but rather pure non-conscious instinct. For us humans, with our freedom of choice, it is always a “time for choosing.” But it is no coincidence that ants keep cropping up, over thousands of years, as a source of knowledge and inspiration in various cultures around the globe. Miniconjou-Lakota holy man John (Fire) Lame Deer speaks about an “ant power” that exists despite the smallness of the ant. Ants foreshadow the great wealth of Midas in Greek mythology (when he was a child, a stream of ants paid tribute to the future king by feeding him grains of wheat). According to Hopi legend, the “Ant People” brought the Hopi into their tunnels to protect them during global cataclysms. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, favorably compares “an ant filled with the love of God” to “kings and emperors with heaps of wealth and vast dominion.” Aboriginal people in modern-day Australia include honey ants in traditional paintings. A Korean saying translates to “an ant hole could break your precious tower down,” indicating that a tiny mistake could ruin everything. A community in Ecuador named itself “Añangu,” a Kichwa term for “leaf-cutter ant.” The Brazilian footballer Miraildes Maciel Mota, known as “Formiga” (“Ant”), is praised for her athletic prowess. A proverb of the Mossi people in Burkina Faso states that “when the ants unite their mouths, they can carry an elephant.” The near-universal presence of ants cohabiting with humans provides an opportunity for shared metaphors, shared symbols, and shared imagination. Any movement dedicated to international solidarity and human progress would be foolish not to appreciate an animal with such potential for global inspiration.

I am reminded of a Chinese fable that a fellow researcher shared with me while I was conducting research on spiny ants at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Yunnan, China. In “The Wisdom of the Ants,” a colony of 1,000 ants are living on a mountaintop when, one day, a forest fire surrounds them and threatens to wipe out the entire colony. Without hesitation, the ants realize what must be done. All 1,000 ants group together into a ball, roll down the mountainside toward the fire, pass through the fire, and arrive on the other side, where the ball of ants disassembles. While many ants died from this approach, it was a communal decision that was necessary to ensure the survival of the colony, and the fable refers to this as “the wisdom of the ants.” Movingly, the story was once told in 1995 by Chai Ling, a survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. 

I believe that this “self-sacrificial” nature of ants–true in reality as it is in this fable–is attainable even in the human species. Contrary to Wilson and Hölldobler, collectivist ideologies do not “have the wrong species,” as demonstrated whenever protestors, as a collective, risk their bodily safety (and sometimes their lives) for any noble aim. Even right-wing figures sometimes issue calls to self-sacrifice, such as pressuring workers, for the sake of “the economy” or to “save America,” to resume labor despite a higher personal risk of serious illness or death from the current coronavirus pandemic. While a vibrant economy indeed carries some positive connection to human wellbeing, self-sacrifice is better justified when in service of goods that more directly promote human flourishing like physical and mental health, family cohesion, spiritual development, or fulfilling leisure.

It is important to remember, too, the remarkable biological diversity that real-life ants protect with their collective efforts. The over 13,000 known species exhibit behaviors that range from tending to aphids as cattle (including defending them from predators, milking them for the sugary “honeydew” they excrete, and moving them to greener pastures) to nomadic mushroom harvesting. Leaf-cutter ants gather leaves to feed to fungi which they maintain via fungal gardening in their underground nests. Several Pseudomyrmex species rely on mutualistic relationships with plants, which produce hollow thorns for housing and fatty Beltian bodies for food in exchange for the ants’ aggressive defense of the plants against herbivores. This is but a small sample of the stunning array of behavioral variation that has evolved within these communal insect societies. 

Ants also enrich the world simply by existing in it. Far from monotonous and drab, the diversity of ant life is marvelously odd and ingenious. Turtle ant soldiers, in the genus Cephalotes, use their flat heads as doors to protect the circular openings of their arboreal twig nests. The bullet ant Paraponera clavata carries a stinger that delivers such painful venom that a person can be in pain for a full 24 hours from just a single sting. Fire ants can form giant living rafts out of their bodies in order to survive floods, while army ants do the same in order to build living bridges and “bivouacs.” Trap-jaw ants can close their mandibles so fast that if they hit a surface, their bodies go flying into the air up to 50 times their body length. Spiny ants in the genus Polyrhachis host ginormous defensive thorn-like spines that can nearly exceed the length of their entire thorax.

As it is, or should be, with human diversity, the variation across ant life is worth preserving for its own sake. To be sure, ants form mutualisms that benefit other species and also provide ecosystem services through soil aeration and significant nutrient cycling. But the intrinsic value of preserving an array of ant species is not rooted in the external services that they provide. Ant societies, much like human ones, are both richer and more remarkable for all of the evolutionary variations on a simple myrmecological theme.

Ants are socialists, a truth as beautiful as ants themselves. Confronting a pulsating mass of uncountably many living creatures piled atop each other while they work to consume every crumb of a cookie may, as when first grappling with a radically new idea, initially elicit revulsion. Yet when properly considered as an instance of a non-hierarchical, democratic society working toward a noble communal goal (feeding their ant babies and providing mutual aid), that which was formerly unsettling is transformed into an inspiration. Incorporating more ant-like perspectives into our political decision-making is sure to come with challenges. But our human capacity to draw inspiration from diverse sources and use it to imagine or re-imagine our future sets us apart as a species. With no shortage of domestic and global challenges to confront—including wars, malnourishment and starvation, inadequate healthcare, racist and classist justice systems, climate change, union busting, corporate exploitation, underemployment, corruption, destruction of natural resources, and so many other pressing issues—we would be unwise to waste any good tool at our disposal. Let us not waste the wisdom of the ants.

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