“Give me liberty or give me death!” — Patrick Henry, 1775
Rebellion is a strange thing. It conjures up the image of an underdog fighting an unjust power. And yet, the word implies a considerable resistance that is often unsuccessful.
A teen going head to head with a parent (a battle of wills). The Confederacy seceding from the Union (we know how that turned out). The Rebel Alliance standing up to the Galactic Empire (they never seem to completely outdo them).
Now consider revolution.
There seems to be a bit more majesty about the word. It implies a larger movement than a rebellion. Actions may be rebellious, but ideas can be revolutionary.
That concept is rooted in the very origins of the word. Taken from the Latin revolvere, meaning “to revolve, to roll back,” the word revolution was initially associated with astronomy and celestial bodies. Copernicus made the connection in On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (1543).
Stars and planets make recurring cyclical movements, or revolutions, around a particular point. This is what allowed astronomers to make observations and predictions, that were bolstered by or helped to improve mathematics.
In On Revolution in 1963, Hannah Arendt likened it to “the ups and downs of human destiny, which have been likened to the rising and setting of sun, moon, and stars since times immemorial.”
In other words, humans are predictable; what’s past is prologue.
Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor and author, perfectly laid out the cycles of unrest and inequality we've endured in the last 170 years or so in her March 7, 2020 update:
“When our lack of government oversight of the economy leads to the rise of extremely wealthy people who take over our political system and use it to promote their own interests, a crisis lays bare the misuse of the government for the rich. Americans then rise up and insist on an active government that protects the equality of opportunity on which our democracy depends. Three times before now, we have played out this pattern.”
At the moment, we're seeing protests on statehouse steps around the country, where people are objecting to stay-at-home orders and social distancing. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand the frustration with being homebound and having to abide by restrictive guidelines when ‘Muricans are so individualistic.
At the same time, it seems that these individuals are protesting for…their right to catch the virus?
It's almost as if they've assumed some twisted embodiment of Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty AND give me death!”
Like the student standing before the tanks in Tiananmen Square, this image will likely become the symbol of rebellion in this era:
This completely turns on its head what we discussed last month (“Pulling Together—Separately”) regarding a person’s ability to put aside his own interests, and instead show concern for the fortune of others.
“In revolutions everything is forgotten. The benefits you confer today are forgotten tomorrow. The side once changed, gratitude, friendship, parentage, every tie vanishes, and all that is sought for is self-interest.” — Napoleon Bonaparte, 1816
What we’ve seen in recent days is the perfect expression of what Lewis Lapham called “the policy of enlightened selfishness and the signature bourgeois passion for more plums in the pudding.” To watch it play out on television, you would think that the tide is rising and the masses are leading a great revolution.
In fact, a recent survey from Navigator Research showed that only 9 percent of respondents think that social distancing measures need to be relaxed, while 52 percent consider that we’re doing the right thing, and 35 percent think we need even more aggressive measures.
It really makes you wonder what those protesters think will happen if they get what they want.
“When the people contend for their liberty, they seldom get anything by their victory but new masters.” — George Savile, marquess of Halifax, 1750
They’ll be able to go fishing and seed their lawns, go to the movies and restaurants (which should be great, since the CDC found evidence of COVID-19 spreading in restaurants via air conditioning), and get back to bowling. Not to mention that the director of the CDC yesterday said we should prepare for a winter spike of the virus.
And then what? We'll be back to another cycle of staying at home. As George III taunted in Hamilton (“What Comes Next?”), “What comes next? / You’ve been freed. / Do you know how hard it is to lead?”
The remarkable thing about the situation we’re in right now is the sudden ability of companies to support remote working and alternative business models. It makes you wonder what they’ve been resisting all along.
In my experience, the push for digital transformation has usually come from small pockets within a company: an innovation team, a digital marketing lead, or perhaps the CEO. But large organizations are filled with middle managers who are comfortable doing business the way they’ve always done and won't deign to disrupt the system. There’s always more resistance to change than the perceived need for change.
“Revolutions cannot, or rather can no longer, be accomplished by a minority. A revolutionary minority, no matter how intelligent and energetic, is not enough, in modern societies at least, to bring about a revolution. The cooperation and adhesion of a majority, and an immense majority, is needed.” — Jean Jaurès, 1901
However, when your entire workforce is working from home and your customers can’t physically come to your locations, that’s a momentum borne of an immense majority. It cannot be ignored.
If we were to survey employees and ask who led digital transformation at their company, would they say it was the CEO? Or maybe the CTO?
More likely than not, they’d say the digital transformation revolution was led by COVID-19.
That doesn’t make it any less real; in fact, it’s probably more so, as it’s everyone’s reality for the foreseeable future. And once we’ve experienced some of these conveniences, we’re less likely to want to completely return to our previous habits.
Now, whether at home or within our organizations, we have a different set of complexities to deal with. Just like advances humans have made in agriculture, industry, entertainment, medicine, transportation and more, we have more options rather than fewer.
The burden we have to bear is the choices we make as leaders, family members and friends amid these options.
“Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny, they have only shifted it to another shoulder.” — George Bernard Shaw, 1903
Did you like this? Think of one person right now who you think would enjoy it too:
Timely: Present Tense
“The brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over we realize this: that the human has been roughly handled, but that it has advanced.” — Victor Hugo, 1862
A little research from a well-regarded online security expert revealed who is behind the coordinated “reopen” protests and content both offline and online. (Krebs On Security)
Facebook is taking down some, but not all coronavirus quarantine protest pages. But only in areas where such protests would violate local Covid-19 social distancing rules. (Recode)
One victim of the revolution is an industry that was already up against the wall before this began: very few department stores are expected to survive. (The New York Times)
Timeless: For the Curious Mind
“Make the revolution a parent of settlement and not a nursery of future revolutions.” — Edmund Burke, 1790
Alessandro Manzoni wrote his novel The Betrothed in 1827, set in Italy in 1628. In it, he recounts the 1630 plague in Milan, emphasizing the failure of the city’s Spanish rulers to contain the crisis and placing significant blame on the people of Milan for their refusal to recognize the plague for what it was or to take proper measures to protect themselves. (Lapham’s Quarterly)
It may not be easy to remain cooped up (remember than Anne Frank and her family did it for three years!), but there’s a silver lining: Discomfort Makes Us More Creative. (Insead)
In addition to watching a lot of streaming media, odds are you’re playing more board games too. If you ever wondered about the right way to play Monopoly (from a Monopoly World Championship representative), wonder no more. (Vox)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“Revolutions are not about trifles, but they are produced by trifles.” — Aristotle, c. 350 BC
🎧 Revolutions is a weekly podcast exploring great political revolutions. Now in its tenth season and looking at The Russian Revolution, host Mike Duncan (of "The History of Rome" podcast) has also covered the overthrow of Charles I of England, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and more. Next: TBD, but definitely not the revolution you want him to cover.
📘 Based on extensive research in both American and British archives, David McCullough's 1776 is a powerful drama written with extraordinary narrative vitality. It is the story of Americans in the ranks, men of every shape, size, and color, farmers, schoolteachers, shoemakers, no-accounts, and mere boys turned soldiers. And it is the story of the King’s men, the British commander, William Howe, and his highly disciplined redcoats who looked on their rebel foes with contempt and fought with a valor too little known.
Don’t forget my offer for pen pals from last week.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the Internet.