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When does social change happen? Revisiting How to Survive a Plague

February 13, 2013

With the Oscars fast approaching, one documentary How to Survive a Plague is a likely winner (though may lose out to my second favorite documentary of the year Searching for Sugar Man).  How to Survive a Plague is, as I described in my earlier review, an emotionally redolent account of ACT UP’s mobilization to move the U.S. government and the pharmaceuticals industry to bring life-extending AIDS drugs from the labs to market and into bodies. Josh Barro makes the case that the reason why ACT UP succeeded is because they made concrete demands, which echoes the argument Ethan Kapstein and I make in our forthcoming book on global AIDS treatment advocacy, AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations, available this fall from Cambridge University Press.

Among our main contentions is that movements need to unite around a common “ask” and that divided movements tend to dissipate their efforts and influence (for a couple of chapters from the book, go here. Comments most welcome!). Barro’s comments struck a chord and he drew some parallels with the relative failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

Josh Barro writes:

ACT UP activists weren’t just angry about national apathy and inaction on AIDS; they also had specific demands and constructive ideas about how the government and drug companies could do better. Unlike a lot of protest movements, once they got to the stage where the targets of their protests said, “I’m listening. What do you want me to do?” they had concrete answers.

There are lessons here for, among others, Occupy Wall Street. The crucial problem with OWS wasn’t sound and fury, that they weren’t airing their grievances in “quiet rooms” as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wanted. Sound and fury can be useful for drawing attention to problems that are being ignored. OWS’s problem was that its sound and fury weren’t paired with an actionable policy agenda that could sway powerful people once they were listening.

Andrew Sullivan provides a different point of view, celebrating the balance of ACT UP between theatricality and pragmatism:

There were two sides to ACT-UP: the drama-laden, spectacle-creating, brilliant rage-filled actions against an indifferent government versus the pragmatic, step-by-step laser-sharp emphasis on actually creating change in the ways Josh describes.

Yes; make a stink. But also: be ready to take yes for an answer, to leave grudges behind, to focus almost manically on the prize and do your best to ignore everything else. Not easy. But by some strange alchemy – and the courage that comes out of terror – it was accomplished.

I see theatricality as part of the information and symbolic politics celebrated by Kick and Sikkink in their classic Activists Beyond Borders that serve to get the attention of decision-makers and raise the costs of inaction. What I think this emphasis on a coherent ask does is provide a fairly measurable indicator of movement strategic savvy and unity. Movements that fail to articulate a policy demand are likely to be ephemeral while divided movements may struggle for influence.

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.