- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Means of Production is a socialist film production team based in Detroit, Michigan. Last year they released their debut electoral campaign video. The candidate wasn’t your average baby-kisser. It was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The ad wasn’t played on television but still got millions of views, going viral on social media and attracting national attention far beyond the congressional race itself. On Twitter, influential activists and journalists hailed it as “the best campaign ad of 2018.”
Means of Production’s Naomi Burton and Nick Hayes kept their foot on the gas pedal. By the end of the year, they’d made videos to mark the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA’s) 50,000 member milestone, for the campaign to establish a public bank in Los Angeles, for an academic labor union in Ypsilanti, for democratic-socialist candidates in Ann Arbor and Rhode Island, and for Progressive International, a joint project of Yanis Varoufakis and Bernie Sanders.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day talked with Burton and Hayes about busting American class myths, creating a new socialist vocabulary, preparing for Bernie 2020, and about Means TV — a “post-capitalist subscription-based streaming service” coming in 2019.
Everyone seems to agree that the Ocasio-Cortez ad was not usual campaign fare. What made it different?
It’s socialism. This ad performed well because it communicated a working-class story with a socialist politics behind it.
We spent a lot of time in pre-production talking through her whole story, talking about her politics, about the community she’d represent and what it’s like to live there. We wanted to root the ad in that community, so people would watch it and recognize it as the place they live, addressing the issues they face, like how insanely expensive it is to raise a family in New York City.
The reason we were so struck by her in the first place is that she was just a normal working-class person who shared our politics. She’s our age. She lives in an apartment that has the same shitty yellow tile that mine does. And she’s someone whose experience is incredibly important to her politics, so we tried to create an authentic portrayal of that experience, and give it a pace and an energy that would make people want to watch the whole thing.
The goal of a typical campaign ad is usually just media saturation and brand recognition. Most campaign ads are devoid of political content, because the candidates and the filmmakers treat them as marketing, not as political messaging. Where does your approach differ?
Yeah, a typical campaign ad is just like thirty seconds, three vague talking points. Sometimes an emotional scene, but there’s never any substance behind the words that they’re saying. Even the more substantial ones are often just using platitudes.
We’re a generation who, or at least I did, totally bought into the Obama hope-and-change messaging. That’s what consultants tell political candidates to do, to use this flat language. We’re trying to stay away from that. We want to talk about actual things that could change people’s lives.
We don’t work with candidates who take corporate money, and we’re even cautious around progressive candidates. We’re looking for socialist candidates who are comfortable calling themselves that. And we’re looking for people with a story to tell that will speak to the working class.
If we were to put all this time and energy into like a video for like Hillary Clinton or somebody, we can do all the filmmaking in the world and it’s still going to come across super robotic, and make working-class people feel disconnected.
Not long after the Ocasio-Cortez ad came out, you linked up with Kaniela Ing and gave him the same treatment. I know they’re both DSA members, and so are you two. Can you tell me more about the political vision that unites the candidates you’ve produced work for?
They’re socialists, and they’re able to articulate that. Kaniela is someone we’ve admired for years, because he’s had the courage to continuously push and lead the conversation left. We created all of the videos in this election cycle to really build on each other and to introduce a new socialist vocabulary for viewers.
We don’t have any language around socialism in the United States. People barely know what “austerity” means. I barely knew what it meant until 2016, even though I was being affected by it.
Our purpose is political. Naomi comes from a corporate marketing and public relations background, and I have experience with corporate filmmaking. Our goal is to put those skills to use making socialist content.
Typically these media tools are only available to the richest corporations, or just corporations in general. When we met through DSA, we both thought, “We’re two extremely important conduits of this corporate propaganda, and we could just remove ourselves and use those skills working to promote socialism.” We realized we had all these skills, but we were using them to speak in an inherently anti-worker language.
And there was a vacuum. Production companies don’t want to come out with a video that has socialist themes or ideas, because they have to turn around and sell that video to their next client. To our knowledge, there’s no other production company at this point that can create really high-end content that isn’t also working with corporate Democrats, or Republicans. Or, like, Wells Fargo. Or all of the above.
When we did the ad for Matt Brown, who ran for governor in Rhode Island, there are lines in that video that draw explicitly from Marxist economic texts. We’re trying to normalize socialist language.
You all undertook this project at just the right moment. For the first time in more than half a century in the United States, it seems possible to speak to the public about socialism without it being taboo or alienating. Why is that?
Well, for millennials, we’re in our mid-twenties to mid-thirties, and we’ve spent most of our life witnessing endless war. Meanwhile none of us can pay back our student debt, none of us can afford health care. I can’t even live in the city my parents are from, and they were really poor. Our prospects are so limited that we’re trying to find new solutions.
There are no more paths forward for liberalism. It’s game over there. Young people realize it, definitely. I don’t have a single friend who’s like, “You know what we need is more technocratic administration of empire.”
Bernie Sanders had a lot to do with it, too. He had everything to do with us starting Means of Production. He talked about material ways that we can make this world better, in a way that we understood.
Class is something that’s been so stuffed down in politics, and Bernie brought it back up and said, “You are in the working class and there is a conflict between you and the owners of society.” That snapped so much into focus for me. Bernie’s campaign was the first campaign I ever volunteered on.
Alexandria volunteered on his campaign, too. I think Bernie Sanders is certainly the reason that all of this is happening at this moment. If he hadn’t run for president, I don’t know that any of this would have come about.
So you two met in DSA in Detroit?
Yeah, we both went to the same first meeting — the first meeting after the Trump election.
Hey, me too! Half of the room was people my age, and the other half was older people who’ve been members for decades going, “Where the hell did you all come from?”
Yeah, exactly. I went because I was so perplexed by Donald Trump’s victory. Which, looking back on it, I realize I shouldn’t have been. But like many other people I was certain it wouldn’t happen. I was talking about it with a friend, and he told me, “DSA is my home base, a place where I can go to be with people who understand the world the way I do, and help me understand it even better.” The first meeting I wasn’t sure what to think, but at least it was something real — not just like, “Let’s get ladies into office.”
Our first meeting was about socialist feminism, actually. It was contrasted in that meeting to liberal feminism, which was a huge relief after the way the “Bernie Bro” narrative played out in 2016, pitting feminists against socialists, and not addressing the inequities between women and men and among women that a capitalist economy creates.
If he runs again, we’re well-prepared this time around. We’re not letting that Bernie Bro narrative get ahead of us.
I agree, I think we’re way more prepared. And I have a prediction that we’ll see something similar this time — except it won’t hinge on gender, it will hinge on race. This time, in the same way that we were able to say that universal health care is a feminist demand, we’re going to have to keep foregrounding that it’s an antiracist demand, too. Or that a Green New Deal featuring a federal job guarantee is an antiracist demand, because people of color experience the highest rates of unemployment and suffer the worst of environmental degradation.
We learned a lot from the experience of the 2016 election and afterward. I think the main lesson we’ve drawn is to be confident in our message, and strategically communicate our politics ahead of time, not just reacting to attacks. And to not be afraid.
I think also what needs to happen this time around, if Bernie runs, is we need to elevate writers and influencers of color and publish them, put them on screen, put them in positions of visibility where they can articulate this themselves.
Is Means of Production formally gearing up for a Bernie 2020 run?
We’re trying to build the spaceship he needs. We certainly are thinking about ways to create content outside of actually working with Bernie that supports him, and very much hoping that we can actually work with him too.
I know what you’re planning for 2019 is way bigger in scope than election-related content. What’s Means TV?
Means TV is a post-capitalist subscription-based streaming service. It’s cooperatively run, and it’s a direct challenge to capitalism and the establishment entertainment structures. The best parallel is something like Netflix or Hulu. We’re a network that creates original content and acquires content from other people that we feel aligns with our values. We’ll produce and distribute that content with the goal of providing a cooperative platform for socialist writers, filmmakers, comedians, and entertainers.
In a few months, we’re going to begin a ten-week free platform launch campaign, where we’re just trying to get people to understand what it is and develop an appetite for it.
Which will take some adjusting. A post-capitalist subscription-based streaming service — we know it will take a minute for people to wrap their minds around that.
When the platform launches for real, it will be home to series, documentaries, feature films, short films, comedy, and animation.
In the process of building for this, we’re also seeding ground in the YouTube wars, which the Right is currently winning. Like, YouTube knows me, the algorithm knows who I am, I’m sure they know everything about me. Yet they’re still feeding me videos by Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan. So we also want to create short-form viral content on YouTube to really compete with the right-wing propaganda being pushed out. We’re working in tandem with a friend who already has a very popular meme YouTube account, and we’ll be posting all of our freebie content on that channel.
What will conceptually and politically unite all of this disparate content?
We want people to register themselves as workers. We want people to start thinking, “We’re all in this against those five guys who own everything.”
We want to tell a different story about class than the one you get in the mainstream media. The dominant understanding is that you can just jump wherever you want to go. Like, you want to be upper-class? Go for it. That’s not how class works.
One of the biggest myths is that there’s a middle class and everyone’s in it. All the time I hear, “I’m struggling, but I’m like lower-middle-class.” It’s like, no, we’re working class. We are all working to create wealth for other people.
We want to make people trust the rich less, and trust each other more.
Another big thing we have to communicate is the fact that things have gotten significantly worse for the average working person. We’re all fed this story that things are are getting better, even when everyone can feel that they aren’t, because things inevitably get better by virtue of the progression of human civilization or something. And that is very much not the case.
We want to make people understand that the difficulties they’re experiencing are part of the chaos of capitalism. And that we can choose to close that chapter and now we can open up a new one. That’s a big reason we’re calling it “post-capitalist,” that optimism.
To what extent is Means TV designed and intended to make socialism go mainstream?
Socialism deserves a hell of a lot more than a niche. It’s been purposely stomped out of our culture, of our conversations, of our political atmosphere. But it was alive and well in this country in the past, and it can be again. In order for that to happen, people need to start encountering a socialist perspective in a variety of contexts, including maybe a comedic animation about how much work sucks.
It’s really hard to reach people physically in huge numbers, but we can reach people with entertainment, we can reach people with a true social media. And we have to try, because we haven’t won socialism yet with the people we’ve got.