At first glance, the perpetrators of the El Paso and Dayton mass murders wouldn’t appear to have much in common. Per his manifesto, the El Paso perpetrator was a white nationalist with a side of environmentalism. The Dayton perpetrator’s Twitter archive and people who knew him paint a picture of a hard lefty.
He was a socialist, and an acquaintance from the music scene described him to BuzzFeed as an antifascist. And not just on Twitter: a local journalist who had happened to go to high school with the Dayton perpetrator recognized him and spoke to him at a Ku Klux Klan rally where the Dayton perpetrator was one of the armed and masked counterprotestors.
The two mass murderers couldn’t appear to have anything less in common. But they shared something alarming: an interest in accelerationism.
The rise of accelerationism as an evident component in mass murders scares the bejesus out of me. Because if individuals (or groups) just start wanting chaos for the sake of chaos, out of a faith that the world they want is on the higher side, it's going to be very hard to stop.
— David Hines (@hradzka) August 6, 2019
The quick and dirty summary of accelerationism (the dumbed-down version, anyway), is that everything is going crazy, things will only keep getting crazier faster, and the only way out of it is through. So rather than fight the chaos, welcome it; increasing the level of chaos will lead to a breakthrough.
The El Paso perpetrator, like the Poway synagogue shooter, took inspiration from the explicitly accelerationist manifesto of the Christchurch, New Zealand mass murderer. The Dayton perpetrator’s Twitter feed has been scrubbed by Twitter or the FBI, but there are archives available, and he references his interest in accelerationism:
As someone who monitors both hard righties and hard lefties, I hear about accelerationism more often from the former. This is probably because hard righties don’t take on projects the way hard lefties do, so they really don’t know what incremental winning feels like. They tend to focus on one grand glorious victory to bring about the ethnostate or whatever.
All hard righties know is that everything they try tends to make things worse for them, so it’s understandable how the idea that if you just make things worse enough you’ll win would be inordinately tempting.
But aspects of accelerationism pop up in both hard right and hard left camps. In a way, accelerationism isn’t far removed from the Marxist idea of “heightening the contradictions,” which has a long history in hard lefty practice. These ideas have now spread through the left, from radical to mainstream, so you don’t just see this from full-on commies, it pops up all the time.
Heighten the Contradictions
Here’s an example from a sympathetic cause: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. If you’re Martin Luther King Jr.’s SCLC, and you stage anti-segregation demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, but the city fathers don’t overreact and merely wait you out, that hurts your ability to produce effect.
So, as the SCLC did, you look over other suitable locations, and hello Birmingham, Alabama! Nonviolent people being set on by short-tempered, short-sighted Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses heightens the contradictions.
That’s kind of accelerationist, right? Make things worse in the short term to force a concession that improves things slightly in the medium term and better positions you to gain a world you want in the long term.
But this is not how stupid extremists see accelerationism. They leave out the medium-term part. The best way you can see this in effect is to look at the hard righties, for whom the basic idea of accelerationism pops up in cycles starting well before “accelerationism” was common parlance on the hard right.
Today you see it espoused by individuals and groups like James Mason of SIEGE notoriety, or the small and remarkably murderous Atomwaffen, but 35 years ago it was an article of faith to white nationalists like Robert Mathews and Louis Beam. Then as now, the chief problem of white nationalists was what they saw as the mysterious failure of white people to flock to white nationalism.
The Underpants Gnomes Theory
Mathews, the leader of the 1980s white nationalist terrorist group known as the Order, wanted to work toward an accelerationist solution: destroy infrastructure in the cities. He thought that would cause black people to riot, which would radicalize white people, and the result would be a white nationalist recruiting boom.
If you think this sounds a little bit like “South Park’s” underpants gnomes—“Phase 1: Collect underpants. Phase 2:? Phase 3: Profit”—you’re not wrong. Mathews’s plan was heavily dependent on the assumption that other people would act precisely as he expected.
You’ll also note that, after the initial terrorist acts, Mathews’s plan doesn’t require white nationalists to actually do anything but sit back as recruits flood in. Thirty-five years on, this is still how white nationalists think recruiting works. The reason their recruiting mantra is “The people are coming to us” is that they have no idea how to actually go to people. But this is what guys like Mathews and his contemporary, Beam, believed.
Mathews’s fixation on this plan makes more sense if you understand that hard righties are pig-ignorant of history. Hard righties reading this piece will be offended by this, because they think they have a fantastic sense of history. But they only know the parts of history they like. They construct a story from those parts and then tell themselves that story over and over, forever. This approach does not exactly produce a learning experience.
(I can’t get too up on my high horse, though, because mainstream righties have a very similar problem. If you read socialist stuff, you’ll see serious analysis of socialist movement successes and failures. Not so much on the right, mainstream or radical.)
I eventually realized that the faith in black rioting being the key to radicalizing whites had really come up among white nationalists who had grown up or come of age while there were a truckload of race riots. To see what grows leftist movements, hard lefties look at history to see what happened when actual leftist movements grew.
Hard righties instead look to their personal experience and try to replicate it for other people—“What radicalized me will surely work for everyone else!”—ignoring the clear fact that, you know, it hadn’t. Mainstream white people rejected busing, and leftists may sneer at them for that, but rejecting busing didn’t make those mainstream white people go join the Klan.
Do Something That Deeply Divides Americans
Still, the notion that making things worse will create floods of white nationalist recruits has stuck around. You see the modern accelerationist version in the Christchurch, New Zealand perpetrator’s manifesto. He chose firearms because he wanted the resulting discourse to inflame public opinion among U.S. lefties to get them to try to repeal the Second Amendment, which would polarize American righties, which would shatter the United States into a race war as white Americans suddenly woke up and converted to white nationalism en masse.
The Poway and El Paso perpetrators read the New Zealand perpetrator’s manifesto and, buying into accelerationism, agreed with the notion that murder to create chaos was the way for white nationalists to break through. It doesn’t seem to occur to white nationalist accelerationists that the general white public might instead conclude, “Yes, these guys are insanely dangerous,” and respond accordingly. It’s hard to see how white nationalists, who can’t organize effectively in the face of nonviolent resistance now would do any better by upping the difficulty level.
On the contrary, if hard righties and hard lefties went to war with each other, every notable white nationalist in the country would probably be dead inside of two weeks. Hard lefties have effective organization, groups all over the country, and a considerable amount of research identifying their enemies. Hard righties have none of that.
The Dayton perpetrator’s motives are still emerging. He has a longstanding history of nastiness. He reportedly had a kill list and a rape list in his school days, and an ex-girlfriend told the press that he had expressed thoughts about wanting to hurt large numbers of people. To that, he added an interest in accelerationism. He’d long desired to harm people, and as a socialist he’d expressed impatience for getting the world he wanted. Holding to accelerationism, why would he not let his long-suppressed desires work for the benefit of socialism?
This Stuff Is Social Poison
The rise of accelerationism among radicals, hard left and hard right, has the potential to unmoor American society. At this point, most radicals still don’t actually want to hurt people enough to do it. If you look at motivations of mass murderers as a Venn diagram with ideological, emotional, or delusional components, the pure ideologues are the rarest.
Hard lefties have learned through over a century of brutal experience that outright murdering works against them, so their level of violence is mostly carefully controlled and calibrated. Hard righties lack organizational structures and training, and they’re fractious infighters subject to effective counterorganizing, so it’s harder to get their people on the page.
Hard lefties are more dangerous as a movement than as individuals; hard righties are the other way round. Even so, most white nationalist murders are still by people in white nationalist criminal gangs who murder people for criminal gang reasons, rather than racist politics reasons.
Most mass murderers aren’t ideologues. But a broadening acceptance of the murderous form of accelerationism could change that. And if more individuals (or groups) start wanting chaos for the sake of chaos, out of a faith that the world they want is on the other side, it’s going to be very hard to stop.