The Influence of Might is Right in the Gilroy shooting

Shortly before opening fire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on July 28th, the now deceased gunman posted two photos to a recently created Instagram account. Although the posts were quickly removed after being linked to the attack, screen captures had already made their way onto other parts of the web. One of the photos was of the festival grounds taken from a distance. The other included an image of a Smokey-the-Bear fire danger sign accompanied by a caption that read “Why overcrowd towns and pave more open space to make room for hordes of mestizos and Silicon Valley white twats?” and instructed viewers to “Read Might is Right by Ragnar Redbeard.”

Following the attack, media sources reported on the popularity of Might Is Right amongst white supremacists, prompting FBI special agent John Bennet to respond that the FBI were not yet willing to ascribe an ideological motivation to the shooting. Bennet dismissed the relevance of Might is Right to the investigationstating that it was published in 1896 and was not “high dollar reading.” But investigators would be remiss to diminish the influence of a book Might is Right can have on shaping a contemporary reader’s worldview simply because of its publication date or relative obscurity.

Might is Right was originally published in 1896 under the title Survival of the Fittest: Or the Philosophy of Power under the pseudonym Ragnar Redbeard. In a prefatory note, the author declares that “the natural world is a world of war; the natural man is a warrior; the natural law is tooth and claw. All else it error.” The next 150 pages expand upon this central thesis, dismissing Christian ethics as “oriental legerdemain,” proclaiming racial equality an “ignoble slave-shibboleth”, and glorifying the “destructive energy” of man.

Might is Right’s long publication history provides insight into the kinds of readers that the text has attracted, as well as the value that these readers have found in the text. Unlike works from the 19th century which remain in circulation thanks to their broadly acknowledged historic, artistic, or intellectual importance, Might is Right has been kept in print for more than a century by a series of publishers working on the fringes of the print market. Specifically, Might is Right has found an audience amongst three niche print cultures: individualist anarchists, occultists, and white nationalists.

Might is Right found an initial audience in anarchist and syndicalist circles, particularly amongst proponents of Max Stirner’s egoist anarchism. As early as 1906, it was being cited alongside Stirner’s The Ego and It’s Own as a normative example of anarchist literature. More recently, S.E. Parker—founder and editor of the journal EGOAn Individualist Review—provided the introduction to the 1984 Loompanics edition. In this introduction, Parker described Might is Right as “one of the frankest and most powerful” cases for social Darwinism he had ever seen. And just this year, editors at UnionofEgoists.com released a heavily annotated “authoritative edition” of Might is Right through the publisher Underworld Amusements.

In the mid-20th century, Might is Right was embraced by occultists and white nationalists alike. Anton LeVay heavily plagiarized Might is Right in The Satanic Biblethe foundational text in the Church of Satan. LeVay also contributed a foreword to the 1996 Centennial edition, which was edited by white nationalist Katja Lane and independently published by Church of Satan member, Shane Bugbee. Bugbee would later reprint both LeVay and Lane’s commentary in a 2003 edition that included an afterword by LeVay’s successor Peter Gilmore (Gilmore also provided the introduction to the 2019 Underworld Amusements edition)In order to promote the 2003 edition, Bugbee hosted a 24-hour radio special on radiofreesatan.com that featured Tom Metzger, founder of White Aryan Resistance, and George Eric Hawthorne, member of the white power band RaHoWa, whose 1995 album Cult of the Holy War included a song titled Might is Right that used passages from the book as lyrics.

Lane published another edition in 1999 through 14 Words Press, which had originally been founded in 1995 to disseminate the writings of David Lane, Katja Lane’s incarcerated husband and member of the domestic terrorist organization The Order. In the editors note for what is known as the Millennial Wotensvolk edition, Lane downplayed Might is Right’s historic association with anarchism and instead emphasized the racist nature of its social Darwinism, suggesting that reading Might is Right would help “Aryan” men rediscover their “Nature-ordained manhood.” Lane also speculated on Redbeard’s identity, repeating LeVay’s debunked claim that The Call of the Wild novelist Jack London is Might is Right’s true author. (Mark Darby has made the compelling case that Redbeard was actually a muckraking journalist and failed Labor politician from New Zealand named Arthur Desmond.)

Since the Millennial Wotensvolk edition was released in 1999, Might is Right has been reprinted by an increasing number of publishers thanks to innovations in publishing technologies. While some of these publishers specialize in esoteric or controversial literature, many are explicitly white nationalist in their orientation. Ostara Publications has both hardcover and paperback editions available for purchase on Amazon, and Racial Observer Books sells copies via the print-on-demand self-publishing platform Lulu. Social media affords progressively decentralized networks of dissemination, meaning many new readers never need encounter a physical copy of the book at all. PDF copies are shared on Internet communities like 8chan and Stormfront, and self-produced audiobooks are freely available on YouTube.

Investigators and analysts should not dismiss the role a historic text can play in modern radicalization simply because it is old or obscure. And while Might is Right may belong in the dustbin of history, it has been continually saved from true obscurity by groups and individuals sympathetic to the philosophy it espouses. The Gilroy shooter chose to promote this text specifically: we should be asking why.

Ms Kitty Shropshire is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral Candidate in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. See her profile here.

© Kitty Shropshire. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).