The Charles Manson cult and its murders were before my time, but have formed part of my professional research into forensic psychiatry and anthropology. Given recent shifts in the political landscape, I suggest that Manson’s far-right cult (‘family’) and their aims remain unpleasantly relevant today.
The ‘flower power’ era of the late 60s can seem far away, particularly its scene in sunny California to which many young people flocked. However, the fault lines in society (and not just in the USA) which marked that era’s cultural explosion are still present. Activists then were tackling more or less the same forces of racism, patriarchy, and imperialist violence. And as Hunter S Thompson put it, they anticipated “inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil”. For all the progress they won, that outright victory has still not been won. Those young boomer radicals are now mostly pensioners; and Hunter tragically blew his brains out. But the battles rages on, in fresh ways and on new fronts.
A lot will be said about Charles Manson in the coming days. Much of it will focus on hallucinogen use, which was hardly unusual then (or now). Many take hallucinogens at festivals, but we don’t see Glastonbury turn into a far-right army trying to start a war, which is what Manson was trying to do. Ultimately it was Manson’s twisted politics that lay at the root of the murders, filled with fantasies about ethnicity and the relative worth of people of color, compared to Manson’s ‘master race’.
Manson’s ‘family’ was behind nine murders in 1969. The slaughter was designed to trigger an apocalyptic race war, just as Anders Breivik’s massacre was designed to trigger a war against Muslims. Manson’s idea was that black people would be blamed for the murders of prominent white figures, and that this would spark a violent mass vengeance on black people.
Manson called the anticipated war Helter Skelter, a reference to Beatles material onto which he projected all sorts of delusional ideas – including Charles himself being the Messiah of a biblical apocalypse.
Manson’s plan was as convoluted as it was bizarre, but it ultimately relied on the assumption that white people would be wiped out in a race war, save for him and his ‘family’ of young white cult members. Prior to that ‘war’, he and his followers were to make an album filled with messages about the impeding conflict, just as he imagined there were in Beatles songs. The songs were intended to lure young white women who had flocked to San Francisco to his group. Manson imagined that this would deprive black men of white women to have sex with, and fuel their frustration and anger.
During the race war, Manson and his enlarged cult (so he anticipated) would remain hidden under Death Valley, where he believed (due to his reading of the Book of Revelations) they would find a city of gold in a bottomless pit. He hoped to emerge, with the cult expanded to 144,000 people, to enslave the black population. Even the most modest part of the plan, making the album, did not work out as Manson hoped; hence the murder spree, intended to speed up his prophecy.
Manson was sentenced with a swastika scratched on the center of his forehead, which he subsequently got tattooed. While in prison, he and members of his cult maintained connections with other far-right supremacists, who still form powerful prison gangs today.
We have been witnessing a sharp rise in open far-right activity across Europe and the USA in the years following Manson’s incarceration. Over the last decade alone white supremacists like Richard Spencer and cronies, have attempted to rebrand the far-right by using the term ‘alt-right’. This has had some success, bringing angry young men under the umbrella who might not personally identify as supremacists – most notably the fascist-inclined “free speech” grifters who invaded Charlottesville in August under the sham pretext of defending Confederate statues.
It is important when measuring Manson’s present day significance to note that while the fascist ‘alt-right’ does not operate in the same way or upon the same delusions, it is no coincidence that they nevertheless exhibit many similar tendencies.
Spencer himself, when he isn’t complaining about Twitter taking away his verified tick, argues for a white only country. Shitposting his way past all the evidence from genetics, psychology and anthropology that utterly refute his views, he firmly believes black people are lesser beings. He claims to favor “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, but as one of the main Charlottesville organizers he seemed curiously unwilling to comment on his side’s heavily armed contingent – which a Department of Homeland Security official remarked “were obviously stashed”, adding: “some reporters are splitting hairs, but there were obviously weapons in the city.”
We also know that the alt-right had long since developed a very deliberate method of radicalizing isolated young men – online, through a careful series of steps known as ‘red-pilling’. The way they cultivate a mark in a guided journey away from the political mainstream (perfected by the now-disgraced Milo) bears a clear resemblance to Manson’s tactical placement within 60s counterculture.
The real danger here is that they know they don’t need to convince everyone to buy into their worldview – they can count on the political center and on cultural discourse to help nudge the gullible in their direction. It is not so long a journey from Katie Hopkins to Tomi Lahren, to Ann Coulter, to outright fascism; not in a media environment happy to push bizarrely inappropriate takes like “The human side of Charlie Manson” in the LA Times.
When we consider the motives of Manson to twist existing conflicts in society in order to gain power, remember that they still nourish far-right agitators today. What would these people be without the battle? Isolated. Losers. Social media has enabled such people to gain devotees far more quickly than Manson did. Therefore, it is right that Twitter and other media limit their toxic influence.
Will Black’s latest book, Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires, is now available in the UK and USA.