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War and social movements in the age of globalization

Faced by the threat of irregular warfare by non-state transnational actors, states have increasingly ignored the rules of war that developed for wars between states in the nineteenth century.

Sidney Tarrow
18 March 2015
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Stop War, July 7, 2011.

Stop War, July 7, 2011. Flickr/ Liam Kearney. Some rights reserved.In his vast body of social scientific work, Charles Tilly made two fundamental contributions to our understanding of the development of modern states and social movements. In the first body of work, Tilly argued that war and preparations for war were the origin of the modern state. In the second, he polemicized against social movement scholarship for focusing narrowly on Northern reformist movements, ignoring more violent forms of what he called contentious politics.  But Tilly made little attempt to bring together his “top-down” approach to war and state-building with his “bottom-up” research on contentious politics. With the growth of non-state violent movements in the twenty-first century, especially in the global South, this is a lacuna that we must work to close.

Tilly argued that war played an indirect role in the creation of modern citizenship rights. Because war makers require resources with which to fight their wars, war making triggers a cascade of other processes. First, rulers build states to fight wars and manage them; second, they need to extract resources from their citizens to pay for them; third, they must protect the citizen groups who provide those resources; fourth, in order to maintain social cohesion, they must develop mechanisms to reconcile conflicts within their societies. These are sometimes despotic mechanisms, but increasingly, they take the form of what Michael Mann called infrastructural power – power exercised within civil society. Protection and reconciliation lead to the creation of the rights of citizens and thence to social movements. This chain of processes starts with the desire to make war but ends with citizen rights and contentious politics.  

In attempting to bridge Tilly’s two strands of research, in a forthcoming book called War, States, and Contention, I put forward the following theses:

  • - political contention often plays a key role in mobilization for war, sometimes working to prevent war but more often enticing states to go to war;
  • - contentious politics plays a key role in war-making, sometimes instilling patriotism in citizen armies and sometimes assuring their defeat by passive or active resistance;
  • - contention emerges from war’s wake because war weakens the state, offers new opportunities to excluded groups, sometimes changing the direction of states, and sometimes overrunning them. 

In War, States and Contention, I used three historical and one contemporary example to support these hypotheses. The historical cases were:

* the French revolutionary wars, which served as a main mechanism for state-building in France – and indirectly on the states that copied the French example;

* the American civil war, which grew out of territorial contention, but increasingly embraced the goals of the abolitionist movement and enormously enhanced the power of the central state;

  • * and the Italian Fascist state,  which grew out of  the First World War and through highly contentious politics at war’s end, destroyed the Liberal state. 

  • * I then turned to the growth of the American national security state during and after the Cold War, an experience that expanded, and fundamentally changed the center of gravity of what had been a decentralized state.

But all of these episodes--like those that Tilly studied in Capital. Contention, and European States--were conflicts, or potential conflicts, between states. All of them were “old wars” – that is, constructions of the centralized, ‘rationalized,’ hierarchically-ordered, territorialized modern state. And all of them were fought--or prepared--by mass armies trained for frontal warfare.  But beginning with the end of the Cold War, and spurred on by globalization, by growing internationalization, and by changes in the technology of warfare, a set of “new wars” and internal conflicts developed:

  • - First, states became more porous;
  • - second, mass armies were partly replaced by insurgent groups using a combination of political and military force;
  • - and, third, the technology of warfare became available to non-state actors.

Partly connected to these two trends, movements became more transnational, both in their capacity to diffuse their messages across borders, and in the more fundamental sense that they mobilized militants across state borders.

Social scientists have been aware of the growth of transnational movements since the 1990s. But they have mainly studied “good” mainly-Northern movements that organized in and around international organizations and used conventional tactics. But with the end of the Cold War, a new generation of militant movements, using a combination of political and military methods, began to appear, mainly in the Global South. Under the new conditions, these movements could organize transnationally; they use networked forms of organization; and they could call upon transnational sources of funding and recruitment. This has fundamentally changed the relations among war, states, and contention.

First, their transnational reach, and their access to financial resources and new technology, have made the new movements both flexible and difficult to suppress;

Second, their transnational nature allows them to take advantage of the growing cosmopolitanism of mass publics, allowing them to recruit outside of and across national lines, as I’ve pointed out in the book The New Transnational Activism;

Third, their use of network forms of organization allows them to take different forms and be active in a number of places at once in different configurations (see Sageman’s book Understanding Terror Networks).

Faced by largely unseen and highly ruthless opponents, states have responded in kind. First, the British in Malaya and Northern Ireland – a “southern” colony in the North; then the French in Algeria and Indochina; and then the United States and its allies in Latin America, met insurgents’ methods of irregular warfare with the tools of counter-insurgency. These tools were originally employed only in the sites of insurgency. But it was not long before they infiltrated domestic politics as well. We first see this in the employment of the means of irregular conflict by the British in Northern Ireland that were first deployed against insurgents in Malaya. Faced by the threat of irregular warfare by non-state transnational actors, states have increasingly ignored the rules of war that developed for wars between states in the nineteenth century.

Consider the state in the United States in the years since the September 11, 2001 massacres. On the one hand, its wars since 9/11 have increased both the scope and the penetration of civil society at home. Growing up in quasi-secrecy in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and elsewhere since 9/11, an enlarged para-state sector began to carry out tasks that were once reserved for civil servants. This enlarged American state has also engaged in sweeping electronic surveillance of its citizens and extended its anti-terrorist paradigm to immigrants and militarized its police forces.

At the same time, America’s wars have been fought abroad with a combination of traditional mass armies, the employment of mercenaries, illegal rendition of prisoners, and the abuse of human rights. It has also used technologically-advanced weapons to assassinate opponents and whoever happens to be in their vicinity. In long-distance wars against transnational enemies, a few technicians far from the battlefield, and thousands of private contractors substitute for “boots on the ground,

Of course, states in wartime have always grown in size, reduced the rights of their citizens, and abused enemies. But in war’s wake, there has usually been a rollback in the size of the state and a return to prewar traditions of protection of citizen rights, whatever those may have been. Thus, although the American engaged in extensive abuse of both foreign and domestic rights in the Vietnam war, these excesses were largely rolled back in the 1970s.

But previous wars were wars against other states. Fighting a war against transnational movements has removed whatever constraints the laws of war imposed when the enemy was another state. These new wars also appear to be endless, even as their shape and their opponents change: they have placed the United States in the unique position of living in war-time, rather than fighting wars with discrete beginnings and ends.  

While building on Tilly’s hypotheses about the links between war, state-building, and contention, it is time to entertain the hypothesis that his paradigm may no longer operate when the enemy is not a state but a transnational movement in an age of globalization. From these hypotheses, the following hypotheses emerge:

  •     - first, the concept of wars with finite beginnings and ends and discrete terrains of conflict may no longer hold when wars are fought by transnational movements with shifting shapes and localities;
  •     - second, the “normal” state expansion and reduction of rights during war may no longer recede in war’s wake, when nations continue to live in “war-time”;
  •     - third, conflicts between states and transnational movements may have a horizontal ratchet effect from external conflict to domestic contention, with a spillover from methods of fighting terrorism (i.e., the militarization of the police) to contesting social movements.

These hypotheses suggest that we may be entering a new era of war, states, and contention, for which we need to develop a new set of tools and theoretical perspectives.

How to cite:
Tarrow S. (2015) «War and social movements in the age of globalization», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 18 March. https://opendemocracy.net/sidney-tarrow/war-and-social-movements-in-age-of-globalization

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