Dixie Be Damned, But Damn Everything Too

An Interview with Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley.

Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley’s 2015 book Dixie Be Damned asks what autonomy from the state would actually require. Upending the narrative of a uniformly conservative South, Dixie traces histories of violent struggle against the white supremacist state. From the Great Dismal Swamp Maroons’ autonomous communities to more recent prison riots, Stafford and Shirley foreground tactics of decentralized militancy, pushing “radicals” to consider anti-state tactics beyond symbolic strikes or protests.

Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford, Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South, 2015, AK Press, 304 pages

Against vacant academic knowledge production, Stafford and Shirley's scholarship responds to and works with movements. Their research doesn’t outrank their identities as anarchists, workers, and friends—it shares a plane. In addition to attending nursing school, Stafford is a "full spectrum doula," working with people through birth, abortion, grief, and death. Shirley teaches MMA, and is a competitive MMA fighter. They currently live next door to each other in Durham, North Carolina. We recently spoke over the phone and via email about policing, “anarchist historiographies,” and Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography.

HALEY MARKBREITER.— Dixie Be Damned opens with a chapter on the Great Dismal Swamp Maroons, freed or escaped slaves who lived communally in the Virginia and North Carolina marshlands between 1700 and 1860. The Great Dismal Swamp Maroons are variously pilloried or valorized for what some see as autonomy and others deride as escapism, but Dixie reveals that, actually, neither narrative is true—the Maroons had an extensive relationship to plantation society.

NEAL SHIRLEY.— To talk about the Great Dismal Swamp Maroons as escapists misses the point. They played a pivotal role in spreading a culture of resistance among slave plantations and even small-time, racially ambiguous proletarian folks. The Maroons actively attacked plantation economies. And their semi-autonomy enabled them to go back and attack the society that they had escaped from.

SARALEE STAFFORD.— Yeah, the very concept of “separate” or “outside” feels myopic. Just as there is no “outside” capitalism, there was no “outside” southern plantation society. There were fringes and borders that people defended with their lives, but Maroons never lived in some fixed, stable community outside of the plantations. Because of regular fights between slave owners and Maroons, the semi-autonomous camps were even forced to shift location every few years. So the struggle was not to build an “outside,” but to build places of refuge that facilitate attack.

SHIRLEY.— C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution is a great case study of maroonage and its disruption of this outside/inside dichotomy. While James takes L’Ouverture’s centralized leadership of the Haitian revolution as a beginning and an endpoint, if you really get into the book, he shows how decentralized resistance—by mobs and large, armed Maroon bands—was also crucial to the Haitian revolution. And, in fact, Toussaint L’Ouverture sold out to European forces. The revolution’s success was contingent on pressure from decentralized bands that continued to force that struggle forward.

MARKBREITER.— In contrast to the perceived separatism of maroonage, classical Marxism touts the mass movement as the only viable resistance model, whose very real and moving draw is that people of all different races, classes, and genders will unite to struggle against capitalism. But you both take issue with this approach.

SHIRLEY.— My problem with the mass movement model isn’t with the idea that we want lots of people to participate. That’s not up for debate. But there’s this kind of arrogance vanguard parties historically approach revolutions with that involves imposing their own political strategies on communities that may already have their own forms of self-organization that are less legible to the state. I also don’t believe there is the single working class that this “mass” model implies. I don’t believe there has ever been one. At best, we can say there are many working classes, many relationships to economy, race, and gender—all of which form the bases for their own revolutionary struggles. And, as anarchists, we should see this as a good thing. We should never raise one single banner and force everyone behind it. We need to meet people where they’re at.

STAFFORD.— Yeah, the concept of a single, stable working class only makes sense if you ignore unwaged labor and enslaved and colonized people.

MARKBREITER.— How does this pushback against the false necessity of a centralized, statist movement model connect with Dixie Be Damned’s thoughts on violent struggle and the wider leftist conversation about militancy and violence?

SHIRLEY.— Our book follows some historical struggles where the armed contingents were absolutely essential, and others where armed aspects play a negligible role. But a centralized military component is never essential. A statist thinker might say, “well, that’s because none of these were full-on revolutions,” but I think that’s a mistake. Organized violence doesn’t automatically equate to revolution. Radical (and hopefully lasting) shifts in social relation equate to revolution. Did the struggle itself invent or reproduce new ways of being? Can they replace and resist the dominant social relations? That’s what’s important. And that can happen in a number of different ways. But non-centralized militancy is necessary, because, as anarchists, we have to survive in this world even as we recreate it.

STAFFORD.— Arms are just a technology. There are lots and lots of ways to fight. The diversity of revolutionary tactics for survival is actually really inspiring. I think it’s important to remind ourselves that any tool used to survive and fight is just that—a tool.

SHIRLEY.— This makes me think of a recent It’s Going Down article, “Know Your (Gun) Rights! A Primer for Radicals,” about the Right’s fetishization of coercion and “might makes right.” This stands in opposition to the American Left, at least since the 70s, which fetishizes victimization and vulnerability—an attitude that can be just as damaging… Victimhood doesn’t lead anyone to empowerment, survival, or freedom. So it’s refreshing to see people reconsider that value, and ask, “What do we really need to survive this moment? What do we need to do for each other?”

STAFFORD.— I agree, but, we have to be careful about how we discuss and aestheticize power. Queer anarchists have extensively critiqued the confluence of physical attack and masculinity. But there are leaky channels between the far Left and far Right, and masculinity and power are both points of convergence. When the far Left, like the far Right, fetishizes violence, we need to criticize that, just as we need to criticize victimization narratives weaponized to control crowds or disempower people. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I admire the campaign that Black women have been waging for Bresha Meadows, who killed her father after he had violently abused her and her family for years. And I think people within that campaign are feeling supported enough to say that, if the Left condemns Bresha Meadows’s actions, they are telling Black women and girls that they don’t deserve a future and that they should be living in terror.

MARKBREITER.— In Dixie Be Damned, you write, “White supremacy’s greatest ally in this country has been democracy, not fascism.” How so?

SHIRLEY.— I am particularly frustrated by the popular front concept, prevalent among many European anarchist and antifascist groups, that white supremacists and Nazis and other related groups originate from fascism. That would mean anti-racism is necessarily a fight against fascism. Not only does this set us up to get stabbed in the back by the Left, it’s just not historically correct. Democracy and bigotry are actually sister concepts here, especially in the South, where organized, paramilitary white supremacist groups—like the Klan—are explicitly pro-democracy. And that makes sense, considering that in the United States, democracy has consistently been used to ensure white propertied political rights. In the Jacksonian era, for instance, small banks expanded slavery by allowing lower-middle-class, propertied whites to own slaves, thereby enabling them to vote and participate politically.

MARKBREITER.— Are you specifically critiquing Western models of centralized democracy, or just any form of majority rules decision-making?

STAFFORD.— I’m uninterested in valorizing the existence of some “original” democracy apart from what was created in Europe and America and then exported around the world. Looking at democracy or democratic decision-making processes in any other light recuperates capital-D Democracy insofar as it positions Western democratic structures as the perversion of some pure idea. In France, democracy was a bourgeois revolution and it was used to overthrow the ruling class. But in the U.S., it was a tactic of colonization and slavery. American democracy laid the foundations for an expansion of capitalism. I just don’t see any historical or philosophical examples of other intentions for democracy.

SHIRLEY.— The problem in contrasting the democracy of a nation state with the democracy of a bunch of people using majority rule, and the reason the two models are the same, is that majority rule always requires physical or economic enforcement. Say we have a 20-person meeting and 17 people vote for one measure. Under majority rule, those 17 willingly implement the measure, but the behavior of the remaining three must be enforced. Without majority rule—without its attendant enforcement mechanisms—those 17 might go implement the measure, while the remaining three are free to do what they want.

STAFFORD.— I’m not into everyone just doing what they want. I’m very not into that. We don’t want individualism or tribalism, where people have no accountability or responsibility to one another. There are ways to create mutual responsibility and accountability outside of democratic enforcement mechanisms.

SHIRLEY.— I’m reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography right now, and there’s a lovely moment when he says, “I suddenly sensed that there was a great difference between unfettered personal license and real freedom.” I like that quote! And I think it summarizes what we’re talking about. All that being said, the experience of Occupy firmly demonstrated to me that the navel-gazing, centralized, and procedurally obsessive nature of the democratic General Assemblies pushed us away from autonomy and freedom, and actually discouraged self-organization and an expansion of that struggle.

MARKBREITER.— How do these critiques of democracy play out in relation to the Trump regime?

SHIRLEY.— I’ve been thinking about the rush, in many leftist circles, to label Trump a fascist, to call the Trump administration a fascist regime. Trump’s executive orders, his electoral campaign, his wealth and megalomania—these don’t make him a fascist. He does not have his own military body loyal primarily to him, he does not have his own party. Calling this regime fascist unnecessarily positions us to defend liberalism, democracy, and civil society.

MARKBREITER.— What do you mean by “civil society”?

STAFFORD.— In the framework of civil rights, there is always another constituency yet to be incorporated into the protected social body. The liberal state is constantly running behind, trying to add the excluded other. It’s a never-ending struggle of inclusion. But the Afro-Pessimists, more deeply and intensely than anyone else, ask us to really consider our motivation in promoting the civil subject and civil society. And, for us, that motivation rests on issues of policing, the development of whiteness at the cost of anti-blackness, and the gratuitous violence of Black death.

MARKBREITER.— The police are the frontlines. They enforce the boundaries of the civil body.

SHIRLEY.— Another definition of civil society is the social bodies that form in between capitalist private life and governmental or economic life, often called “public life.” These different bodies might oppose each other in one way or another, but together, they function as a para-state. A paramilitary operates under similar relations to the state. And in moments of social crisis, when state authority is questioned, those forms of social life rise to the fore to help the state to consolidate and repair itself and its image.

STAFFORD.— Civil society is the fictional body we appeal to for metrics, examples, and determinations of legitimacy. In this register, of course, it’s a construct of a white imaginary.

MARKBREITER.— Against historical methods that prioritize regimes of objective truth and hierarchy, Dixie Be Damned was created via an “anarchist historiography.” Could you talk about that?

STAFFORD.— Anarchist historiography prioritizes narratives and mythologies that sustain present-day struggles. And that’s why Walter Benjamin is so central to our work: within his framework, history is not a dead zone, a list of past events. History is a living, recurring threat to the current racist capitalist order.

SHIRLEY.— I was interested in developing an amateur historiography. It is important that we researched the stories in Dixie on our own, and without sacrificing our lives as anarchists, workers, or friends.

STAFFORD.— There will always be a sloppiness to our methodology, and I own that. When Dixie was published, some professionalized academics were horrified at the holes in our bibliography. And I struggled with that. But you have to remember that these pressures—to fill scholarly gaps, to achieve objectivity, to doubt one’s own academic legitimacy—are themselves instruments of control and discipline. But we aren’t writing to fill gaps, to produce professionalized knowledge for its own sake in ways that just buff up a university’s social capital. These histories are part of a struggle for our own freedom. And we have a stake in that. We have a stake in our own freedom, and in this long journey toward a real, joyful potential to live.