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27.06.2019
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Hayes, Burton: We want socialism to be popular

We work on our videos with people whose expertise comes from being a working person in the world. You don’t need a PhD to understand things, you just need to look at things the way they are and talk about them honestly.

Ilustr.: Rafał Kucharczuk

Ilustr.: Rafał Kucharczuk

Jan Jęcz talks with Nick Hayes and Naomi Burton, the creators of the Internet socialist television Means TV. A Polish translation of the interview is available here.

JAN JĘCZ: We’re talking on Labor Day and soon a year will pass since your filmmaking debut as a production company – a campaign ad for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was a viral hit, it introduced many people to AOC, not only in the U.S., but also in Poland. Looking back at it, what were, in your opinion, the key factors behind the success of this video? What made it so powerful and so well-received in the U.S. and abroad?

Nick Hayes: We always say the biggest reason it was successful is that it was a video about socialism, but with a working class candidate whose identity represented the district she was running in. It combined what the Democrats have been weaponizing for years – race and gender, and identity as the signifier of political value – with actual anticapitalist politics. That’s what the working people want. They felt represented both according to the traditional Democratic identity values and in her political views, which were socialist. I think it was that coming together, basing the project in working class communities. Also, not filming it in the state-fair-kissing-babies, patting-people-on-the-back kind of way, but having it be about struggle, trying to make rent, those sorts of lived experiences.

Naomi Burton: We create videos that we want to watch. So we created this as something that we wanted the people to watch all the way through – no platitudes. We wanted scenes and environments that people were familiar with in their everyday life. And than just having her talking like a normal person instead of like a politician.

J. J.: It had this real life feel to it, and I think it became your signature style. Could you tell me more about other politicians and organizations you’ve worked with?

N. B.: We worked with Matt Brown who ran for governor of Rhode Island, we worked for Julia Salazar who won State Senate in New York, we worked for Progressive International, which was an effort of DiEM 25 and the Sanders Institute that talked about international socialist agenda and what it looks like.

N. H.: It’s been a fun year of advertising and production. We’ve travelled from Hawaii to New York, and we’ve seen that all of these communities are facing the same issues in the U.S.

J. J.: I know you’ve been covering Stop&Shop strikes recently. Union strikes and strikes in general are a hot topic in Poland right now. We’ve recently had a teacher’s strike which lasted for more than two weeks. Sadly, it ended without much of a success, but there are plans to renew it. From your perspective of a small, socialist media company, how do you think the media should cover the strikes? What the media should highlight during the strikes to actually help the strikers?

N. H.: I think the first thing is that all media should be worker-owned. And if the media were worker-owned, like they should be, than all strike coverage would be what it should be, which is, like, showing that these workers are demanding this because their corporate bosses are greedy and shitty. Also, this would show that there are some limitations of just even having unons – we should own these companies. The owners of the company have more capital and leverage in a lot of ways, even than a well-organized union. So that’s why in all of our union coverage we try to talk about what these workers are fighting for, but also about how this goes to show some of the limitations of just having unions, when we should be owning these companies, either as a democratic state, or just as us, workers.

N. B.: All of our media report strike coverage – if they report it at all – from the corporation standpoint. So it’s just displayed as “these workers aren’t working and it’s causing long lines at Walmart”.

N. H.: And they interview corporate executives – and I don’t give a shit about what the corporate executive has to say.

N. B.: This is about framing things in favor of the workers, providing context and providing a conclusion that is like: “This is what we are fighting for and this is what we need to do”, instead of just leaving you with the footage of the strike.

J. J.: Do you believe that the work of independent filmmakers or journalists using the power of the Internet can actually challenge the narrative that the mainstream media are putting out?

N. H.: I think individually it is very difficult for filmmakers or journalists to make any sort of meaningful impact. Our success with AOC was kind of a fluke, it was sort of figuring out that the filmmakers can do campaign ads in this way, so now in the next election cycle we’ll se way more independently made, low-budget campaign ads trying to be viral. We’re trying to basically leverage that success to build a network and an infrastructure – sort of – in which individuals can come together to be more effective. So I would say that for an individual filmmaker it is extremely difficult to make an impact, make a splash, even to get people to watch your thing. We have to build a platform that’s greater than our collective parts.

J. J.: Naturally we’re coming to the topic of Means TV, which you call an “Anti-capitalist, on-demand digital streaming platform”. Was the feeling that media people, journalists, content creators need unity the main reason why you decided to come forward with this project? A project which is far, far more ambitious than just creating ads for politicians or organizations.

N. B.: I think we realized, especially through the 2018 elections, that we need institutions and platforms of our own. We realized that the institutions working within this capitalist framework, whether they’re media or digital, are never going to allow us to have full power. So creating our own institutions allows us to create our own audiences, build power, and make money, and be able to fuel a lot of this.

N. H.: All of this was happening at the same time as leftie podcasts and journalism in the U.S. was kind of taking off and really finding some success – with “Chapo Trap House”, “Street Fight Radio” and “Jacobin Magazine”. So it was kind of like, “There is a real audience for this, but it isn’t mainstream yet, so how do we make all of these kind of separate media properties, media entities go mainstream and build a larger audience?” And the most marketable mainstream media we have for content are video and film. So the idea is that we create a platform in which all of it can come together and contribute in that medium. That will allow us to compete with Fox News, right-wing on YouTube, and things like that.

J. J.: But why not choose already existing platforms? By putting out content on YouTube or Netflix you can probably reach audiences much easier, much faster. Why are these traditional platforms not good enough for spreading this pro-workers, anti-capitalist messaging? Why did you feel the need to create a new platform and not try to colonize some of the available ones?

N. H.: We are on YouTube or on Twitter, we are on Facebook, we are on all of these platforms. But because they are owned by a handful of super-rich shareholders, any time our content can be pulled down, we can be deleted from the thing. Also, a lot of these websites today are very friendly to, and very close with, the right-wing agitators and groups. Those are aligned much more with what the companies want, which is is to maintain profit and to have an economy that is highly unequal, in which they can continue to do business. So I think the biggest reason we feel the need to build our own platform is that, looking at Netflix, Hulu or Amazon, Amazon’s never gonna come out with a documentary or a comedy sketch about how horrible it is to work at Amazon Warehouses. Netflix is doing a film with the Obamas about how dangerous it is to undo bureaucracy. We have to start thinking of these platforms as much lamer and stupider than we think of them now. We think of them as the only platforms that exist for entertainment now, but the reality is that they’re pretty stupid and they put out bad stuff, and they spent way too much money on content.

N.B.: And I also have the impression that we think of these platforms, like YouTube or Netflix, as non-political, when in fact they’re super-political. The CEO of Netflix is super-pro charter schools and has basically done everything he can and taken all the money he’s made from Netflix to privatize the LA school system. Our money is going somewhere, all of this stuff is political, so why not just have something that is not super anti-worker? We know we are gonna have to work with the tools within a capitalist system to be able to get enough audience to bring them over to another platform.

N. H.: Rich shareholders at these companies are using their money to enact their political agenda, and we plan to do the exact same thing. We have to create a profitable platform that is worker-owned and democratic in order to generate revenue. In America, in a lot of countries actually, money equals political power, so the left has to start figuring out how the fuck to make some money.

J. J.: You say that media platforms are quite hostile places for leftist messaging. But at least one thing exclusive to them seems to be worth fighting for: the audience they have gathered. It seems like this audience, on YouTube especially, is exposed mainly to the right-wing propaganda, and while there are people who are trying to counter this phenomenon, like ContraPoints, they seem to be alone in this fight. Do you plan to try bringing these YouTube or Facebook Video viewers to Means TV?

N. B.: It’s really important to us. On YouTube we constantly get served Jordan Peterson videos, Joe Rogan videos. We are both socialists and still a lot of right-wing content is curated for us. Seeing how the right is using this platform, we wanted to be involved in that. Our friend Sara June created the Nyan Cat, and she has a YouTube channel that has 127 000 subscribers. Now we are using it to put out all of our content, all of our comedy, all of our explainers, and we are going to continue doing that while we are building a streaming service. We are going to always be putting out videos on YouTube and social media for free to pull people in.

N. H.: Means TV will be a streaming platform similar to Netflix, but we are also producing a lot of original content. We are going to be doing different styles of video – CollegeHumor-style comedy, Vice-style reporting – to show people that it’s not that hard to make funny or dramatic videos. We have the writers, we have the ability to do these things. The idea is to bring new people into socialism by having all these different formats. We are going to be making gaming content, sports content, all of these things in order to bring different audiences that are looking for different themes.

J. J.: Means TV is a crowdfunded project. What is the goal of your campaign and how is it going?

N. B.: It’s going great. We have thousands of individual small donations from all over the world, we have well over a million views across all of the videos we’ve published over the course of the campaign. The goal is not only to fundraise for the streaming platform, to actually be able to build it and to fund the first year of content, but also just to generate awareness, to show people what anticapitalist entertainment even looks like. We were sure that people would like it, but we didn’t know exactly how they would react. Now multiple videos have gone viral, we were on Fox News and they played one of our videos about what is capitalism – they even ran a whole article about it. So it’s definitely freaking the right people out and bringing new people in.

N. H.: The fundraising campaign is like a proof of concept. We basically wanted to ask people: “Wouldn’t it be cool if your newsfeed was full of really good videos like this? Well, that’s what we are raising money for”. In the future, we are going to be a subscription based service. For $10 a month the subscribers will get access to all of the content: full TV shows, full movies, they will be able to access forums and talk about things related to Means TV. We are never going to have advertisements, but from time to time we would do donations drives, offerings, etc.

J. J.: In an article in “The Intercept” you said that the main goal of Means TV is “to help create the cultural foundation and support needed to build socialism in the U.S.”. Meanwhile it is not uncommon in the socialist movement to dismiss such efforts, as they seem to concentrate on, using Marxist terms, reshaping only “the superstructure”, not “the base”. How do you think content creators, especially those on the Internet, contribute to the goal of dismantling capitalism?

N. H.: That’s a fair question. I think there are two real things that we want to do with content, as a cultural project. The first thing is raising the general class consciousness. We want people to understand that they are a working class or an owning class, and that there is an inherent tension between the two which will never be reconciled without political revolution. The second thing, very important for the U.S., but probably for many other countries as well, is to develop a sort of distrust for institutions. Many people think that we can reform or tweak certain things, but they need to understand that we don’t have a real democracy here. We want them to resent the current system, to get them to the point of revolting, striking, building solidarity at their workplaces – and we want to show them that it is an okay thing to do.

And as to your point about the Marxist analysis of culture being sort of secondary to the economic and political foundation of society, I think at the time this analysis was true. But as we have seen the advent of mass media, both in the form of cable television and the Internet, we now have a much more homogenised culture than we’ve ever had. This creates new opportunities to promote things that most people identify with. For example, in America, most of the people support Medicare for All, but among the elected representatives only a minority does. The discourse is so off from where the base of people is that, through inserting this perspective of working class people, there is power to be built.

N. B.: We saw through AOC’s work that the real reason why she is so powerful is that she was able to cross over to the cultural space, and she is able to shift the Overton Window as a result of that. The right is already taking the cultural space and there is a lot of power to be gained there. So we want to, basically, open people up to saying “Fuck your boss”.

J. J.: Your marketing campaign is called “Bread+Roses”, which symbolises connecting educational and entertaining content. Could you tell me a little bit more about this concept?

N. H.: In socialism you have to pair both basic essentials of life with the enjoyment, pleasure, seeking what is beyond the bare necessities. I think that’s a powerful message and that’s why “Bread and Roses” is a phrase we still use on the left. We wanted to use it to easily explain to people why each week they will be getting an explainer and comedy, and both these types of content are nourishing, but in different senses. Also, you know – we work in marketing. We got to make it sound snappy.

N. B.: We are mostly interested in the Roses part of it. But most people don’t even know what capitalism is, don’t understand hierarchies, mainly because our media never bring these topics up. We have to create some foundations so that people can understand where this Roses content comes from.

N. H.: We sometimes treat content like food, asking ourselves: “What is really good for me and what do I just want? What is vegetables and what is just candy?”. I feel like our explainers, even though they are more informative, are kind of like a candy, because they are so easy to consume. We try to sneak vegetables under disguise, like when our comedy sketches make huge points about U.S. imperialism.

J. J.: Do you think that the media created on the left used to be too highbrow?

N. H.: I think there just wasn’t a lot of leftist videos. Video is stupidly powerful in its ability to communicate an idea and put it in your head. That was a huge opportunity we saw. Also, I think generally a lot of what exists on the left is just reporting and journalism. As somebody who followed American journalism very closely in 2016, I don’t have much faith in it anymore. I don’t think it’s in a fit state to hold people in power accountable, especially since, in the U.S., billionaires like Bezos, Murdoch, or Gates own biggest media outlets. We wanted to do something that was more fun. Climate change is probably going to ruin most of the civilization anyway, so let’s just have fun for the next few years until we drown.

N. B.: We want socialism to be popular. If we want people to understand us, then we have to to explain it to them. We work on our explainers with people whose expertise comes from being a working person in the world. You don’t need a PhD to understand things, you just need to look at things the way they are and talk about them honestly. I don’t like to read a ton, and I always felt stupid when I entered rooms talking about Marxism, feeling like I couldn’t quite get it. But in reality it’s not that difficult. We just need to come up with different ways of talking to people about it.

J. J.: Whose work exactly inspires you the most, and who are the creators you would like to work with?

N. H.: Definitely ContraPoints, Chapo Trap House, Sarah June, Adam Curtis… All of those folks are just doing incredible things independently. There’s too many people doing really great stuff, and we need to find a way to build on that success, have their audiences overlap, and have a way to finance projects. When someone comes up with an idea for an important documentary, there should be a way to just be like “Do it!”.

J. J.: We’ve talked a lot about what Means TV is. Now I would like to ask you about your personal experiences with this project. I know you both worked in corporate marketing and PR. How would you describe your transition from this background to being full-time socialist filmmakers? Do you have any advice for the people who would want to follow this path? Maybe there are some burned-out professionals reading this right now in their cubicles, contemplating leaving their corporate life, using their skills for some greater good…

N. H.: The big thing was us realizing that I was making the videos that Naomi was sharing…

N. B.: Yeah, we met at our first Democratic Socialists of America meeting and we were kind of the only young people there, because the group was traditionally rather old until Bernie. Nick was a freelance filmmaker at the time, I was working for a PR agency that serviced Top 100 companies – and it was soul-sucking. He was basically creating the car commercials that I was doing all the social media for… It was just hell, especially after we started developing this class consciousness and we realized that we were creating a ton of value for these corporations. We started thinking: “What if we just took all that out, didn’t take any of the corporate money and saw what we can do with the video in the electoral and political space”. I think it was just us realizing that we are creating a ton of value for these companies, and we can create some value outside of that, with high-end video.

N. H.: People need to realize that if you have a job, you are making somebody else a couple of times more than what you make. That’s the whole premise of job under capitalism. You are getting less than what you deserve. The best you can do — especially if you have, for example, nationalized healthcare and it makes you more free — is to figure out what sort of skill you have and look what the movement in your opinion is missing. Try to think about the collective and not about yourself so much. See how you can fit with other people, help elevate them.

N. B.: I know it comes from a position of privilege, being able to quit my job, but, unlike Nick, who was a freelancer, I was going to a 9-to-5 job — and quitting that was so freeing for my mind. I was finally able to understand what I’m good at, because I had been so isolated from the value that I’d created. It might be terrifying, it was for us, we had no idea if it was going to work out, but if you can, quit your job. Spend some time trying to figure yourself out and it really can work.

N. H.: Of course it’s hard to tell people literally: “Quit your job”. Our message is more – and it might sound lame –like this: “You are probably very good at something, you should believe in yourself…”. We are all taught that we’re stupid, that we can’t do anything…

N. B.: …and especially our employers try to convince us that we don’t have that much value.

N. H.: Yeah, that’s the biggest thing. All day you sit at a place where people tell you things like “All you should do is click this button”. But you can do way more.

J. J.: I feel like many things that you are talking about could be described as alienation… Many people seem to believe that the Internet, the sharing economy, can help fight it, as their main goal, at least in theory, is to connect people. Do you think that it is easier to resist capitalism in the digital age, or does it worsen the situation of the working people?

H.: The digital economy is basically a new iteration of capitalism. It’s gonna be harsher, it’s gonna be worse for workers. Jobs are getting far less reliable. In America, if you work in digital media or if you are a gig worker, you get a new job every year, every six months. There’s no security in the workforce anymore, people are pressured to constantly learn new skills and re-qualify. It can boil over and that’s when people start to riot. We live in Detroit, and there’s a feeling in the Midwest that people are just getting by. They have just enough money to live, everything is getting more expensive, and wages are staying the same. I don’t see how after the next economic collapse, which is inevitable, there isn’t some response to that. We have nothing to lose anymore, so things have to boil over.

N. B.: The Internet is helpful for organizing to some extent, for reaching other people, like we wouldn’t connect with you if it wasn’t for the Internet, but it can also be isolating.

J. J.: You’re painting the future with dark colours… Many people say, both in U.S. and Poland, that the future will be decided during upcoming elections. Both our countries are in the middle of political campaigns, there is a lot of hope and fear in the air. Do you feel hope in electoral politics?

N. H.: We always tell people that no one will save us. There is certainly hope in electoral politics, so we should build movements, reach out to people, organize. Americans pay so much attention to electoral politics and it’s one of the reasons why it’s so powerful. But one of our incentives for doing Means TV is that even though we want to do electoral work and we think it’s meaningful, we don’t think it can save us from climate change. The U.S. military is one of the world’s biggest polluters, and we are not gonna abolish our military under social democracy. Solar panels are made by prison slave labour in the U.S. We’ll stay on path towards climate disaster for all of these different reasons as long as we have this grim, globalised economy.

N. B.: But for the first time in decades we have a presidential candidate who is a socialist. The Overton Window is very large within the electoral space, there’s a lot of attention there, a lot of power to be taken. Even though it’s the movements that are going to fuel change, we have a real opportunity here. 2020 will be an interesting turn of events. If you have Trump versus a socialist, it’s gonna be a very interesting election and itl’ll allow for a lot of space to talk about issues like Universal Basic Income or Medicare For All — which is now kind of like a centrist policy issue, and that’s never been a case. I have more hope than Nick.

N. H.: I’m more cynical, but I’m Gen Z and Naomi is a Millenial. My generation is far more cynical politically, and that is why a lot of our humor is so cynical. I think I won’t have a natural lifetime because of climate change, and I feel like I have to joke about it.

J. J.: You both see more or less hope in electoral politics. As political marketing practicians, do you have any suggestions for people who want to challenge the status quo this way? Especially those on the left, who feel like they have a convincing message but often face opponents with more money, more media exposure.

N. B.: I have some thoughts. Using the tools that are free and that get out to a lot of people is a helpful start. But as far as messaging, to me the one thing that is so powerful – and that the right can’t do – is painting the world that we want to live in and that can completely be achieved. I don’t think even the left now does a very good job of painting things like “We can have a great, peaceful world, where people live with dignity — and it doesn’t even mean going to a nice job, it means not going to a job and spending the day outside!”. We can do a ton to build our creative imagination so that people aren’t constantly like “Well, that’s not possible”. Let’s talk about the future in plain terms to make people crave that. That’s what keeps me going, I crave that other world that we can definitely live in.

N. H.: And the other thing is, do your research on your opposition and figure out where you can hit them, what are the things that the community would hate them for. Pretty much every campaign needs a good guy and a bad guy, and if you are the underdog, paint your opponent as this corporate vampire or something like that. Good stories often have the protagonist and the villain — and your opponents are usually villains, so it shouldn’t be that hard to tell this story.