For this installment of CARR’s Reviews and Interviews series, CARR Doctoral Fellow Meghan Conroy interviewed three researchers at the forefront of accelerationism studies: Alex Newhouse, Matt Kriner, and Jon Lewis. Accelerationism posts an existential threat to democracy as we know it, yet is deeply understudied and misunderstood. This interview contributes to the critical need for clarity and further discussion on the topic.
Meghan: There doesn’t seem to be much deep research out there on accelerationism. With that being said, you guys are (in my humble opinion), some of the top researchers of accelerationist doctrine and its adherents. For the benefit of our readers who may not be familiar with the concept, can you explain accelerationism to me in simple terms?
Matt: I think the best way to describe it would be that there are people who want to collapse society for the sake of collapsing it in any way they can. They’re fed up with the status quo and the only answer they have left is, “let’s just destroy it all, let’s figure out what comes next later.”
Alex: The only thing I’ll add is that it’s different from other apocalyptic movements because while they would accept nuclear war, they aren’t necessarily trying to be the ones to actually go out and acquire a nuclear weapon and then wage a nuclear war. They’re trying to put pressure on existing conflicts and existing divisions to make those divisions worse, because they think at some point that will lead to some sort of global war and global collapse.
Matt: And I think what differentiates them from other actors who are antagonistic to the state or are willing to do terrorism is that they aren’t trying to capture the state. They don’t want to make the state work for them, they just want to tear it down.
Meghan: Then what do you think is the most important thing people should understand about the accelerationist threat?
Jon: I think, based on conversations I’ve had, a common misconception is that this is somehow a brand new thing that we’ve never seen before. I think it’s really important for researchers, practitioners, and everyone in between to understand that this has been around in some form for a long time, and that it’s important to understand the strands that tie that from past to present, and why that makes the movement and the doctrine itself so dangerous today.
Alex: Probably the important thing to understand—in my opinion—about the new characteristic that we’re seeing is unification of different factions within the far right and also across other extremist milieus that traditionally have been enemies and at each other’s throats. There has been an increase in coalition-building across all sorts of different movements that are pushing the same goal.
Jon: The same thing is true for what we talk about with every other kind of strain and strand of extremism is true for accelerationists, right? They’re highly adaptive, they use the same social media platforms and a lot of the same tactics and tools that we’ve seen other currents of extremists use in the past 10, 20 years. And those same kinds of core issues we talk about—how do you counter extremists’ use of technology, extremists’ use of new and emerging tools—stand even more true for accelerationists.
Meghan: This feels like a natural segue. Do you guys want to speak on your feelings about the “salad bar ideology” metaphor?
Matt: I think there’s a real gap between those who have been doing this for a long time and those who are steeped in the contemporary actors versus the more old-school researchers and their frameworks of understanding what is and isn’t a threat when they look at accelerationist content. They’re trying to fit a circle into a square and it doesn’t work. The better way to put it is the risk indicator models need to be adapted and updated to accommodate the threat of accelerationism. The way that the doctrine is applied is considerably different from the way other terrorist activity has been carried out—not because it’s in kind separate from terrorist activity—but because people have different strategic aims and goals and tactics to do it. “Salad bar ideology” is a great representation of indicators being old, and researchers needing to reevaluate how they understand the indicators. This leads to misconceptions like that of the “salad bar ideology,” which argues that extremists are acting in an incoherent way that doesn’t seem to make sense. The actors themselves are saying: “We have a clear ideology, we have a clear way to move forward,” and many practitioners now are saying, “Yeah, but how does that square with the literature? How did that work with this in the past?” Those are the wrong questions to be asking.
Jon: I agree with what Matt said. I think it’s more of a case that “salad bar” as a concept has been overused and over-applied in a very generalist way that doesn’t always necessarily fit what we’re seeing. There are certainly instances in which there are folks—you know, your average isolated white guy, as well as some jihadist folks—where you clearly see that they weren’t really tied to one specific facet of an ideology. Their worldview was kind of an amalgamation of ideologies and personal issues and they just wanted violence. I think in some cases you can point to people like the Pulse Nightclub shooter and say there’s a bunch of different stuff going into this that doesn’t all track, but there’s clearly a desire for violence. Violence in that instance is seemingly a core piece. But then there are other cases that we’ve talked about a lot, like Devon Arthurs and the Texas Walmart plotter, where I think people don’t fully understand it and just latch onto the historical framework of “salad bar.” They over-apply it and say, “oh, you know these things are seemingly contradictory, so that must be salad bar,” when I think what we’re talking about here is deeper, more doctrinal stuff.
Alex: I sort of view “salad bar ideology” as an extension of horseshoe theory. It’s an attempt for people to simplify a very complex trend into something that is explainable. It’s appealing to believe that extremists are drawn to one another solely because of the extreme part, and not actually ask questions about the specific aspects of the ideologies and doctrines that are coalescing and combining. One of the manifestations of accelerationism that’s been coming up is that it’s not random. It’s not a unification solely based on being on the extreme fringe. It’s a unification based, in large part, on specific ideas about how to look at the world. Those things bring people into contact with seemingly contradictory ideologies, but at the core of it is a specific worldview that is pushing for that specific combination.
Matt: I think this is how you also get notions like fringe fluidity, which, at the kernel, have some value. They’re not necessarily entirely wrong about the phenomenon. What they’re aiming at exists in the world, but they’re not investigating the underlying niche philosophical trends. That leads to spurious analysis, and that’s something we all fall prey to. The rabbit hole of accelerationism is as big as it gets, as complicated as it gets. Sometimes that’s by design, but it’s also by virtue of the fact that in the liberal world that we live in and the materialist, rationalist frameworks through which we’re all educated make it really hard to grapple with some of these niche, esoteric understandings or philosophical movements. We’ve kind of put aside for the longest time saying, “how would that lead to terrorism? Never mind. Let’s focus on radical Islamists that are very clearly a threat.” It’s not necessarily that accelerationism—as Jon pointed out earlier—is new. Rather, it’s that we’ve had a long time to ignore the reality of what it was and overlook those indicators that need to be updated, as I mentioned earlier. But then we also have the same challenges that exist elsewhere: that there are true believers, and then there are those that sort of latch on because it’s fun. These are all the same arguments. It’s just a matter of reinterpreting that in a contemporary context with a different doctrinal approach that kind of belies all the contemporary terrorism literature in a lot of ways.
Jon: Also, information is really at a premium here for a lot of this stuff. Specifically, I’m thinking about the Texas Walmart plot. We wouldn’t know most of the stuff that we do know about the plotter if that picture didn’t come out—the one that shows the Sonnenrad-type flag, the Confederate flag, the Saudi flag, The Turner Diaries, Evola. If we don’t get that picture from the police raid, we don’t really have much to point at. And even the work the Program [on Extremism] does is primarily driven by court documents. It’s a window in but it’s not the complete picture. So especially when you look at cases—where the exact motivation, these ideologies are a bit fuzzy—that comes down to the fact that we as researchers are only getting a small, small piece of that investigative puzzle, which is always going to make clear identification tough.
Meghan: As we just talked about, accelerationism relies a lot upon different doctrines and specific texts. Is there anything important that you want readers to know about the radicalization processes of people who uptake accelerationist worldviews?
Alex: I think the one specific aspect that I find fascinating is that accelerationism has become the bridge between what we would consider conventional right-wing extremists and terrorists and the new wave of like, 4chan edgy radicalized folks. It is becoming the shared language for those who were radicalized on weird memes about The Turner Diaries that are like 12 steps removed from the actual Turner Diaries text, and it’s bringing them into the same communities where people are legitimately engaging with the canonical texts of right-wing extremism, especially in the US. It’s expanded the total number of pathways into a terroristic posture that I think particularly impacts far-right revolutionary terrorism and insurrectionary terrorism.
Jon: In the specific case studies we’ve looked at, especially in the US context, the target audiences are getting younger and younger and younger. And I think that requires researchers and analysts to develop an understanding of increasingly niche online spaces to understand how these kids as young are being explicitly targeted. You look at Atomwaffen and The Base—most of the guys in those spaces were no older than 24, 25—and they’re getting younger and younger and younger. And it was this intentional, clear targeting of minors. This is a tough topic to really talk through, but minors with explicit mental health issues and neurodevelopmental disorders are a big piece of this, and I don’t think can really be understated.
Matt: It really goes back to that sort of question that we’ve seen across the radicalization literature: causal, acausal, or life experiences. As Jon said, the individuals that are predominant targets of accelerationist recruitment, radicalization, and the push to violence are skewing younger and younger. The average age is in the low- to mid-teens. The question is: what are the catalyst events for them? I think we have to sit back and change the way we understand radicalization and the accelerationist context. Most times, we can look at anti-government actors or terrorist organizations and we can find individuals that have personal meso-level community or meta-level national or group identity catalysts in America. But with the younger individuals, there are fewer life experiences for them to draw motivation from. Asking what it is that’s pushing them on this pathway becomes more and more esoteric in the sense that it is existing predominantly online. Whatever is informing their radicalization is largely fabricated, and that’s something I think is extremely unique and important. We talk about radicalization literature and what is changing in that space; I think if you really ask yourself why, it’s because people can suspend reality a little bit easier online. It becomes easier to transition someone into believing there’s no political solution by the time they come of age.
If you’re at all understanding of the contemporary status of climate science or where we’re headed politically in a lot of different spaces, particularly geographic regions where accelerationism is the most prominent, the outlook is bleak and it’s not something that we should disagree with these individuals on. We should try to understand why they feel that way and then be empathetic towards it so that they don’t feel that the only option for them is accelerationist-driven extreme ideologies and racist groups that want to tear it all down. There are eco-fascist arguments that tap into the same things that liberals and moderates look at and say, “oh yeah, we should do x, y, z policy thing instead.” But they can’t vote—many haven’t gone through high school yet. They’re thinking, well, shit, what other option is there if I’m going to make a change? Not everybody can be Greta Thunberg and go out there and do whatever they need to do to get a platform, so they choose what they believe to be the next-best option. And I think that’s something that’s changing dramatically in the radicalization phase.
Meghan: Anything else you’d like to add?
Matt: I think one of the biggest things I’ve noticed is that there’s a broader division within researchers in general. That division resides predominantly along the lines of how much time one spends in the primary activity space, not the primary text or the secondary literature space. And that’s important because if you don’t sit and painstakingly read the comments, you’re going to miss the things that need to be extracted or need to be highlighted in your own research. And there’s explicit, there’s implicit, and then there’s alluded to content there that a lot of times gets overlooked. It’s understandable that as you progress in your career, you’re going to start looking at the bigger picture. You start looking at more policy-level work, you’re going to be asked to do things at a more meta-level within the field. And that’s understandable. But that doesn’t erase the need to still get into that primary space. You can’t just translate what you’ve done previously into this new space and expect to be a one-to-one or even a close enough fit—horseshoes and hand grenades. I think the primary thing is that there’s a need to get into the principal content and grapple with it yourself to really understand what’s changed.
Jon: We’ve talked about the fact that there’s a dearth of good empirical research on accelerationism. With that said, Jade Parker’s definition of accelerationism should be used as the standard for others engaging with the topic; she is a vanguard on this topic. I also think a lot of the gap has been filled by journalists, and one s that are doing good work. Mack [Lamoureux] and Ben [Makuch] and Tess [Owen] at Vice, for example, are journalists who have done a lot of really, really good in-depth investigative work that’s uncovered a lot of the stuff that we’ve been able to then turn around and use to further that research in a more data-driven kind of way.
Recommended reading from the author and interview subjects:
● Sam Jackson’s Oath Keepers
● JM Berger’s Extremism
● David A Neiwert’s In God’s Country
● Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home
● Stuart Wexler’s works
● The following online articles:
○ The Threat Is the Network: The Multi-Node Structure of Neo-Fascist Accelerationism (via the CTC Sentinel)
○ The Evolution of the Boogaloo Movement (via the CTC Sentinel)
○ Pride & Prejudice: The Violent Evolution of the Proud Boys (via the CTC Sentinel)
○ Accelerationism in America: Threat Perceptions (via G-NET)
Meghan Conroy is a CARR Doctoral Fellow, a PhD candidate at Loughborough University’s Online Civic Culture Centre, and an Analyst with Moonshot.
Alex Newhouse is the Deputy Director of CTEC, where he focuses on right-wing extremism, religious fundamentalism, online extremism and terrorism, and terrorist propaganda. In particular, he collects and leverages large-scale social data to understand how the communities, relationships, and language of extremists evolve.
Matt Kriner is a Senior Research Scholar at CTEC, where he is also the lead for the Accelerationism Threat Assessment and Research Initiative (A.T.A.R.I.). He has ten years of experience supporting government, tech corporations, and other entities on evaluating radicalization and violent extremist actors.
Jon Lewis is a Research Fellow at the Program on Extremism, where he studies homegrown violent extremism and domestic violent extremism, with a specialization in the evolution of white supremacist and anti-government movements in the United States and federal responses to the threat.
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).