Blaze Bernstein, age 19 at the time of his murder, loved to cook.
Before he traveled back to his home in California for the 2017-’18 winter break, the University of Pennsylvania sophomore had been elected managing editor of a campus cooking publication called Penn Appétit. It’s a position he ended up never filling.
On the morning of January 2, his parents noticed that he’d left their house in the Orange County community of Foothill Ranch and tried to contact him. When he didn’t respond, they checked his Snapchat account and found messages between their son and Sam Woodward, a former high school classmate. The two had planned to hang out at a local park.
Bernstein, who was gay and Jewish, texted friends that he and Woodward were meeting for a sexual encounter. Less than a week later, investigators discovered Bernstein’s body in the park, hidden by a tree branch and a mound of dirt. He had been stabbed 19 times in the neck.
Authorities quickly identified Woodward as a suspect and found Bernstein’s blood in his car and on a knife in his possession. They learned that Woodward was a member of Atomwaffen Division — one of the most extreme neo-Nazi groups in the country. He was arrested; he pleaded not guilty and is still awaiting trial.
Bernstein’s 2018 slaying marked the beginning of an extraordinary period of white supremacist violence — a spate of murders and mass shootings that has continued through this year.
The October 2018 shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence in American history. The March 2019 Islamophobic attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history. It was followed in April by another attack on an American synagogue (this time in Poway, California), and an August 2019 shooting at an El Paso Walmart that was one of the most brutal attacks targeting Hispanics in US history.
In late July, FBI Director Christopher Wray reported that the FBI had made as many domestic terrorism arrests in 2019 as it did in all of 2018 — and further, that “a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
These killings were often linked to the alt-right, described as an outgrowth of the movement’s rise in the Trump era. But many of these suspected killers, from Atomwaffen thugs to the New Zealand mosque shooter to the Poway synagogue attacker, are more tightly connected to a newer and more radical white supremacist ideology, one that dismisses the alt-right as cowards unwilling to take matters into their own hands.
It’s called “accelerationism,” and it rests on the idea that Western governments are irreparably corrupt. As a result, the best thing white supremacists can do is accelerate their demise by sowing chaos and creating political tension. Accelerationist ideas have been cited in mass shooters’ manifestos — explicitly, in the case of the New Zealand killer — and are frequently referenced in white supremacist web forums and chat rooms.
Accelerationists reject any effort to seize political power through the ballot box, dismissing the alt-right’s attempts to engage in mass politics as pointless. If one votes, one should vote for the most extreme candidate, left or right, to intensify points of political and social conflict within Western societies. Their preferred tactic for heightening these contradictions, however, is not voting, but violence — attacking racial minorities and Jews as a way of bringing us closer to a race war, and using firearms to spark divisive fights over gun control. The ultimate goal is to collapse the government itself; they hope for a white-dominated future after that.
Accelerationism has bizarre roots in academia. But as strange as the racist movement’s intellectual history may be, experts believe it has played a significant and under-appreciated role in the current wave of extremist violence.
“It’s not an ideology that exists in a theoretical sense,” says Joanna Mendelson, a senior investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s an ideology that has actually manifested in real-world violence.”
The earliest version of “accelerationism” was, ironically enough, in some ways a celebration of the status quo.
The mainstream ethos of the 1990s was thoroughly capitalist, the collapse of the Soviet Union creating a sense that the spread of the American economic and political model was inevitable and irresistible. This coincided with a technological revolution — the rise of widespread internet access and the birth of mass internet culture, a sense of a world defined by and connected through technology in previously incomprehensible ways.
At the University of Warwick, a relatively new but well-regarded English university, a young philosophy professor named Nick Land argued that the triumph of capitalism and the rise of technoculture were inextricably intertwined. Drawing on the work of famously dense continental theorists like Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Jean-Francois Lyotard, Land argued that capitalist technological advancement was transforming not just our societies, but our very selves. The self, he believed, was being dissolved by the increasing speed and pace of modern life — the individual was becoming less important than the techno-capitalist system it found itself in.
“Modernity has Capitalism (the self-escalating techno-commercial complex) as its motor,” Land wrote in an email to Vox, in characteristically cryptic style. “Our question was what ‘the process’ wants (i.e. spontaneously promotes) and what resistances it provokes.”
The “we” he’s referring to is the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), a group of Warwick faculty members and graduate students who worked with Land to examine the questions that would come to define this early accelerationism. The writing that came out of CCRU’s work has a hallucinatory, ethereal quality that makes it hard to figure out exactly what they’re trying to say (Land’s marquee book is titled Fanged Noumena). It also feels very of its time; CCRU members obsessed over electronica and used the word “cyber” a lot, all conveying a sense of a society rapidly accelerating toward an exciting future.
The CCRU was a fount of mad energy, obsessed with the pace of life under late capitalism; its members had utter disregard for traditional academic norms about scholarship and behavior. This could not last long. The CCRU split from Warwick in 1998, long after the university’s philosophy department had grown tired of its antics.
According to Andy Beckett, a journalist who chronicled the CCRU’s rise and fall in the Guardian, Land and his remaining followers moved into a home in Leamington formerly owned by prominent British satanist Aleister Crowley, part of an obsession with the occult that had flourished in the accelerationist ranks. Beckett describes a psychologically tortured group that would scribble strange diagrams on the walls of Crowley’s former home. In Fanged Noumena, Land describes his “tool of choice” during his darkest period as “the sacred substance amphetamine ... after perhaps a year of fanatical abuse [I] was, by any reasonable standard, profoundly insane.”
After the CCRU’s collapse, its members spread across British academia as well as fields ranging from journalism to music production. Its ideas rose to prominence again in the early 2010s, taking two separate, and opposed political turns.
One was left-wing and academic, a school of Marxist thought focusing on how technology can be conscripted toward building a post-capitalist future. The other was right-wing, and in major part a product of Land’s mind.
After his breakdown, Land moved to China and became enamored with its techno-authoritarian political system. He worked as a journalist, reporting uncritically and favorably on the Chinese regime’s accomplishments. When I asked him which politicians he admired, he said he’s “not huge on political figures” on the scene today. However, he added, “[Singaporean technocratic authoritarian] Lee Kuan Yew and [former Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping were greats.”
Land turned this admiration for technocratic strongmen into an entire political ideology. Linking up online with the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Curtis Yarvin — who writes under the pen name Mencius Moldbug — he helped construct the doctrine of “neoreaction,” or NRx, essentially an argument that democracy had outlived its usefulness. In his 2013 series of essays on the topic, titled The Dark Enlightenment, Land argues that the ideal state is a capitalist monarchy described as “gov-corp,” the state-controlled by an authoritarian CEO organizing policy according to the dictates of “rational corporate governance.”
It was essentially a hard-right spin on accelerationism. Neoreactionaries argue that egalitarian and democratic policies described as “progressive” by left-liberals are, in fact, a way of slowing down the only progress worth having — acceleration toward techno-capitalist singularity. Neoreaction is a version of accelerationism adapted to address this problem.
“Neoreaction is Accelerationism with a flat tire,” Land wrote in a 2013 blog post. “Beside the speed machine, or industrial capitalism, there is an ever more perfectly weighted decelerator ... comically, the fabrication of this braking mechanism is proclaimed as progress. It is the Great Work of the Left.”
Though NRx has no mainstream proponents, it does have connections to prominent figures. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has reportedly read neoreactionary literature, and Trump-backing venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s fund supported Moldbug’s tech startup Urbit. In emails to right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos obtained by Buzzfeed, Moldbug claimed to be “coaching Thiel,” telling Yiannopoulos that he “watched the  election at [Thiel’s] house ... He’s fully enlightened.”
Neo-Nazi accelerationism and the alt-right
The extreme right-wing internet is a small place. The rise of neoreaction inevitably led it to cross paths with another online fringe movement of the mid-2010s: the alt-right.
Members of the two movements didn’t agree on everything: While Land and Moldbug valorize capitalism and see democracy as the major barrier to a better future, alt-right ideologues like Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor valorize whiteness and see Jews and non-whites as the problem. Nonetheless, the two shared core ideas, like an emphasis on the role of genetics in creating human hierarchies, that make them comfortable coexisting in the same online spaces. “Although I am not a white nationalist, I am not exactly allergic to the stuff,” as Moldbug once put it. (Land is somewhat more critical, writing in The Dark Enlightenment that “the opportunity for viable ethno-supremacist politics disappears into a logical abyss.”)
The result is considerable cross-pollination between neoreactionaries and the alt-right. Ideas and terminology crossed the different group lines; some fringe influencers, such as the YouTuber Colin “Millennial Woes” Robertson, have described themselves as being both neoreactionaries and members of the alt-right. A 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center investigation found that several posters on The Right Stuff , an alt-right website, were heavily influenced by neoreaction.
“Many of the ideological seeds that would make me open to Hitlerism started with Dark Enlightenment,” one of the posters quoted in the study wrote.
This is the most likely means through which the racist movement became introduced to the term “accelerationism.” There’s no meaningful use of the term or attention paid to Land among American racists prior to the alt-right’s encounter with The Dark Enlightenment — and why would there have been? An abstruse techno-capitalist philosophy seems to have little in common with the herrenvolk hatred of the KKK. It wasn’t until the rise of neoreaction and the alt-right — two very online movements that shared members in common — that the encounter would have happened.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that “accelerationism” has displaced the alt-right in the eyes of many internet racists.
In popular usage, the “alt-right” is generally taken to refer to racists on the internet. That’s actually a bit imprecise: The alt-right is a specific subset of online racists, one that believes white nationalism can triumph by trolling journalists and staging real-life demonstrations like Charlottesville. The basic model is Hitler and the Nazi party: Win power through democratic elections, then enact your goals.
This has long been a controversial strategy in the neo-Nazi community. It had been tried before in the 1950s and 1960s by the American Nazi Party, whose charismatic leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, attempted to turn it into a legitimate force. Rockwell staged a rally on the National Mall, demonstrated against civil rights, and planned marches through Jewish neighborhoods on Jewish holidays. This amounted to very little politically and, in 1967, Rockwell was assassinated by a former member of his own party.
The alt-right’s leaders believed the time was right for another try, in large part thanks to Donald Trump and the internet.
Trump is seen by the alt-right not as a crypto-Nazi, but as an outsider sympathetic to white nationalist goals. He served as a figurehead, a rallying point that could help them convert larger numbers of Americans to their cause. The internet allowed them to try out their message with a mass audience: memes and trolling and message boards allowed them to bypass media gatekeepers and reach Trump fans who might be receptive to white nationalist ideas directly. Indeed, the combination of Trump’s rise and alt-right online activity did swell the movement’s ranks considerably.
The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was supposed to be proof of concept, a demonstration that the pro-Trump shitposters could be turned into a real-world political movement. What actually happened was a wave of national revulsion and backlash, particularly after the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer by a white nationalist. The alt-right lost access to social media platforms, was hounded out of public demonstrations by Antifa, and unequivocally denounced by virtually everyone in American politics (except Trump). The second Unite the Right rally, held in DC in 2018, was a pathetically low-turnout affair.
The silver lining for the alt-right — the president’s “very fine people” comment — wasn’t enough to salvage things. Trump, despite all his vicious rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies, had failed to stop what white supremacists see as the existential threat to America: the country’s long-term movement toward becoming a majority-minority country. The alt-right’s theory of change through elections lost favor with others on the white supremacist fringe.
“From 2015, when Trump announced and attacked Mexicans that first day, through around Charlottesville, these people really thought they were going to be victorious in the electoral [process] and be able to take a peaceful route back to power,” says Heidi Beirich, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “That has been completely given up on.”
This was the moment that neo-Nazi accelerationism really began its rise to prominence — and promote its new and more violent theory of change to supplant the ideas of the “alt-cucks,” as accelerationists derisively termed their white nationalist opponents.
Like neoreaction, neo-Nazi accelerationism holds that the liberal-democratic order is a failure — that we should move beyond it toward a better future, and that the task of political action should be to accelerate the speed of that transformation. Only in their view, that “better future” is not capitalist authoritarianism, but the total collapse of a degenerate and corrupt Western society — and the rebirth, out of its ashes, of a new political order more hospitable to white domination.
Their main inspiration on how exactly to “accelerate” this process came from James Mason, a previously unheralded neo-Nazi writer who produced a newsletter called Siege in the 1980s. In Siege, Mason uses the collapse of George Lincoln Rockwell’s political strategy to claim that any attempt to work inside the parameters of normal politics was doomed to failure. A better approach, he argued, was pioneered by serial killer Charles Manson — a correspondent of Mason’s who deeply influenced the theories developed in Siege.
The murders committed by Manson and his disciples served, in his mind, as a model of decentralized violent action that would be hard for authorities to stop. If neo-Nazis emulated Manson on an individual level, killed and tortured select targets, eventually they could help spur a white uprising against the system — accelerate the pace of a societal collapse already made inevitable by Jewish and non-white corruption, and set the stage for its replacement by a Fourth Reich.
“If I were asked by anyone of my opinion on what to look for (or hope for) next I would tell them a wave of killings, or ‘assassinations’ of System bureaucrats by roving gun men who have their strategy well mapped-out in advance and well-nigh impossible to stop,” Mason writes in Siege. “His greatest concern must be to pick his target well so that his act may speak so clearly for itself that no member of White America can mistake its message.”
Mason is still alive today. He lives in Denver and looks like an unremarkable bearded white man — that is, when he isn’t wearing his vintage Nazi uniform and a swastika arm band. He languished in obscurity until 2017, when members of the militant neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen tracked him down. The group was founded in 2015 and had long admired him; many of its members were on Iron March, a neo-Nazi web forum that was an early promoter of violent accelerationism.
After linking up with Mason in real life, they received his blessing to continue aggressively promoting his ideas, to promote websites with names like Siege Culture aimed at updating Mason’s framework for modern times. The accelerationism they preached centered on heightening the contradictions, using violence both to target their enemies and force a harsh response from the political system — eventually, they hoped, demolishing the state apparatus that stands between us and a white-dominated future.
2017 was a good time for such a doctrine to begin spreading: The alt-right was buckling under post-Charlottesville strains, drawing adherents from those extremists disenchanted with the alt-right’s comparatively cautious approach. They adopted the alt-right’s tactic of trolling and shitposting to popularize their more violent ideas; the phrase “Read Siege” became a meme they pushed on social media.
Atomwaffen organized itself into cells: Adherents would meet up at physical “hate camps,” practice with rifles, and plan their next move. Accelerationist ideas flourished separately on social media platforms and extremist web forums like 8chan and Fascist Forge, reaching neo-Nazi groups around the globe.
The dedication to violence in accelerationist spaces is scary. They openly fantasize about the need to kill Jews and non-whites and even celebrate ideologically opposed acts of violence — like Islamist terror attacks — as a blow against the system.
Though violence is celebrated as the preeminent tactic, they’re willing to endorse non-violent means as well. Accelerationists have proposed distributing flyers for racist rallies alongside ones for a counter-rally, to stoke social division and create conflict. They suggest you should always vote for the most radical candidate in any election, regardless of their position on the political spectrum, to undermine the system’s coherence. One poster I saw even heralded the rise of Bernie Sanders, a Jewish socialist, on the grounds that his proposed expansions of the welfare state would bankrupt the US government and thus undermine its grip on power.
In their view, any sort of increase in social tension is good as long as it accelerates us toward system collapse — and individuals have an obligation to do what they can to hasten us along this path. Even, or more precisely, especially committing murder.
“I would be willing,” as one Fascist Forge contributor put it, “to use all resources possible for accelerationism.”
How accelerationism spread terror
Starting in 2017, Atomwaffen members began practicing what they preached. From that year on, the group has been publicly linked to at least five killings, including Blaze Bernstein’s. In October 2019, police in Washington arrested Kaleb Cole, believed to be the leader of the state’s Atomwaffen division, and seized eight guns from his residence. They believed he was about to commit a mass shooting.
But the thing about accelerationism today is that it does not require any organized plot or group to lead to mass murder. Accelerationist justifications for violence have suffused online white nationalist spaces to the point where anyone can encounter it and draw their own murderous conclusions.
“There is an entire subculture of individuals who are promoting this concept, who advocate for sabotage and destruction against the system,” Mendelson, the Anti-Defamation League researcher, says. “It only takes that one individual who’s inspired by the rhetoric on that message board to act.”
The internet has allowed James Mason’s original vision, “lone wolf” violence, to become a reality, not just in the United States but globally: Accelerationism seems to have played a role in the March 2019 Christchurch shooter’s decision to gun down Muslims while they prayed.
Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant’s motivation was a mix of hate and fear: Like all contemporary white supremacists, he believed non-white population growth was an existential threat to his race. His manifesto is titled “The Great Replacement,” a term coined by a French writer but in context refers to the theory of “white genocide” by demography that goes back decades in the white supremacist movement. Tarrant’s plan for stopping white genocide drew liberally from accelerationist ideas; he literally titled a section of the manifesto “Destabilization and Accelerationism: tactics for victory.”
“Why did you carry out the attack? ... To add momentum to the pendulum swings of history, further destabilizing and polarizing Western society in order to eventually destroy the current nihilistic, hedonistic, individualistic insanity that has taken control of Western thought,” he writes. “The change we need to enact only arises in the great crucible of crisis.”
It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Tarrant’s attack and manifesto on the internet’s racist right. The Christchurch shooting claimed 51 lives, one of the deadliest white supremacist terror attacks in modern history. The sheer violence of the assault on New Zealand’s small Muslim community turned his manifesto into a must-read on the racist right — and made accelerationism into one of the dominant ideas on the fringe right today.
“Atomwaffen was a relatively insular universe. When the Christchurch shooter starts describing this, it makes a big jump to the wider consciousness of the white supremacist movement,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Beirich says. “That clear statement of accelerationism in the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto took this to another level. Now, pretty much everybody on the radical right has read this stuff, imbibed this stuff — and he put it into the public domain for white supremacists.”
In April, about a month after Christchurch, a man named John Earnest entered a synagogue in Poway, California, and began firing on worshippers. Earnest’s manifesto is a mix of old-school Christian anti-Semitism and internet-era hatred; the manifesto cites both Tarrant and 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers as inspiration, but seems particularly inspired by Tarrant’s writing (“Tarrant was a catalyst for me personally,” he writes).
At one point, Earnest explicitly borrows a clearly accelerationist idea from Tarrant’s manifesto: the idea that using a gun in an attack could hasten the state’s collapse by stoking conflict over gun control.
“I used a gun for the same reason that Brenton Tarrant used a gun,” he writes. “The goal is for the US government to start confiscating guns. People will defend their right to own a firearm — civil war has just started.”
Several months after Christchurch and Poway, a third white nationalist named Patrick Crusius shot up a Walmart in El Paso, specifically targeting Hispanic patrons. Like Tarrant, Crusius was obsessed with the idea of a demographic threat from non-white immigrants. He pledged his allegiance to the New Zealand killer’s way of thinking.
“I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto,” he wrote in a pre-attack screed. “The Hispanic community was not my target before I read The Great Replacement.”
It’s tricky to say definitively that accelerationism “caused” Blaze Bernstein’s murder, other acts of Atomwaffen violence, or the three white supremacist mass shootings of 2019. There is almost always a complex web of personal reasons for why an individual chooses to kill; It’s possible they would have turned violent regardless of what ideas they were exposed to. The influence of accelerationism is clearer in some of the killers’ writings than in others (Crusius’s manifesto, in particular, doesn’t seem too indebted to the theory).
Accelerationism is a diffuse idea, and it’s best to think of its influence as such. Neo-Nazis didn’t need accelerationism to be violent, but rather the doctrine’s omnipresence in online far-right spaces makes it more likely that both groups and individuals are inspired to embrace terrorism as a tactic. The frequent expressions of support for violence increase the baseline risk that someone turns to it.
“As late as Dylann Roof [the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooter], the reaction of white supremacists was kind of ambivalent,” says Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League. “Now ... they want more people like that to emerge.”
It’s hard to even say how many spaces there are encouraging that process. Atomwaffen is not the only organized group promoting accelerationism; other groups whose ideas fit the doctrine are the Bowl Gang, a small group of online propagandists who lionize Roof; and The Base, a trans-Atlantic neo-Nazi umbrella group that explicitly aims to turn online chatter into real-world violence.
These groups have also largely moved beyond open web forums like Iron March, Fascist Forge, and the now-shuttered 8chan. You can find their content on major social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter, but most of it has to be masked or heavily censored in order to avoid bans. (One accelerationist video I watched on YouTube bleeped out the word “Nazi” in the narration in an effort to dodge the censors.)
The real hubs of accelerationist activity are secure messaging platforms like Telegram, apps that are harder for law enforcement to surveil and easier to keep free of outside influence. Journalists and professional hate-watchers have gotten access to their channels, but it’s impossible to know exactly how many are operating outside of anyone’s view. Barring federal regulations weakening the encryption protections for these platforms — a proposal that raises serious privacy and data security concerns — it may not be possible to effectively keep tabs on what accelerationists are saying to each other and what they’re planning.
White supremacist violence tends to come in waves, with high-profile killings typically inspiring copycats until the movement is exhausted. In that sense, the current wave of accelerationist-influenced violence is hardly unprecedented.
But this is the first such wave in the era of internet ubiquity and is largely made up of young, digital-native men. Accelerationists instinctively understand that their statements and actions can rapidly reach a planetary audience. They are exploiting the speed of life under late capitalism to spread hate to the masses, a dark parody of the techno-capitalist singularity posited by CCRU theorists in the early 1990s.
In our correspondence, Nick Land told me that “the assumption” behind accelerationism was that “the general direction of [techno-capitalist] self-escalating change was toward decentralization.” It seems that this was partly correct — but in a far more horrifying way than anyone at the time could have anticipated.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers political ideology and global politics. He also hosts Worldly, Vox’s podcast on foreign policy and international relations.
Chris Malbon is an illustrator and designer based in Bristol, UK.