Alumni Short

Symposium Explores New Book by Visiting Professor Sidney TarrowIthaca, NEW YORK, Mar 2, 2016

“The radically new phenomenon of the twenty-first century . . . is not that national movements episodically go to war against states but that states wage war against transnational movements, with profound implications for national security law and national security policy,” Sidney Tarrow asserted during a symposium in the Macdonald Moot Court on February 10. The event was held to discuss his book War, States, & Contention: A Comparative Historical Study, published last year by Cornell University Press.

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For the last two decades, Tarrow, the Maxwell M. Upson Professor Emeritus in the Cornell Department of Government and a visiting professor of law at the Law School, has explored “contentious politics,” disruptions of the settled political order caused by social movements. In War, States, and Contention, he shows how such movements sometimes trigger, animate, and guide the course of war and how they sometimes rise during war and in war's wake to change regimes or even overthrow states. He draws on evidence from historical and contemporary cases, including revolutionary France, the United States from the Civil War to the anti–Vietnam War movement, Italy after World War I, and the United States during the decade following 9/11.

At the symposium, moderated by Stewart J. Schwab, Jonathan and Ruby Zhu Professor of Law, commentary on the book was provided by Michael C. Dorf, the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law; Joseph Margulies, professor of law and visiting professor in the Cornell Department of Government; and Jens David Ohlin, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law.

Acknowledging the “extremely important insight” provided by Tarrow’s account of contentious politics, Margulies encouraged Tarrow to delve further using what he considered a more satisfactory analytical tool: the comparison of a state’s reliance on despotic power versus its reliance on “infrastructure power” ⎯ in other words, its penetration of civil society. “If Sid can develop that as his next book,” said Margulies, “I think we will have a real theoretical breakthrough on the genuine relationship, at least in a Western state, between war and rights.” 

“Sid is probably one of the country’s great commentators on the notion of contentious politics,” said Ohlin, before inviting Tarrow to elucidate the distinction between contentious and routine politics; “it seems to me that politics by its very nature is contentious,” he noted. Ohlin also observed that Tarrow seemed to be on the side of the “continuation thesis” in the debate over whether or not the Obama administration has affected a significant shift in the restriction of rights initiated by the Bush administration after 9/11. 

Concluding the symposium, Tarrow spoke of his motivations for writing War, States, & Contention. One was the passing of Tilly, his mentor and collaborator. “Before Chuck passed away, I had the bad grace to complain to him that he left out of his book on war-making and state-building the subject he practically invented in other works, contentious politics . . . ‘I’ve written many books on both these subjects,’ he said, his tongue deeply embedded in his cheek, ‘Why don’t you bring them together?’ I took that as both a challenge and a fitting homage to the great social scientist to whom this book is devoted.”