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Left-wing Radicalism in the United States: A Foreign Creed?

“We’ve had socialism in this country for so long”: An interview with Yael Bridge, director of The Big Scary “S” Word

Alice Béja et Yael Bridge

Résumés

Le documentaire The Big Scary “S” Word, sorti sur les écrans en septembre 2021 aux États-Unis, retrace l’histoire du socialisme dans ce pays et ses manifestations contemporaines. Dans cet entretien, la réalisatrice et productrice Yael Bridge revient sur le contexte de production du film, l’importance du socialisme dans l’histoire des États-Unis et dans le contexte politique contemporain, et sur les raisons pour lesquelles elle a choisi de mettre en avant la diversité des expérimentations socialistes et le sens que celles et ceux qui s’y identifient donnent à ce terme.

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Texte intégral

Introduction

1The Big Scary “S” Word (2021) follows several characters in their political involvement with socialism, particularly a schoolteacher from Oklahoma, Stephanie Price, and Lee Carter, a former Marine who was elected to the Virginia House of Representatives in 2018 and 2020 as a socialist, under the banner of the Democratic Party. It also features socio-political experimentations such as a worker cooperative in Ohio or a state bank in North Dakota, while delving into the rich history of socialism in the United States, from the founding of the Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin, to the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Among the academics who are interviewed in the film are Vivek Chibber, Eric Foner, Matthew Karp, Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Cornel West.

Context and Structure of the Film

Alice Béja: What was the context in which you started working on the movie?

Yael Bridge: I spent several years working with Robert Reich, the Labor Secretary under President Bill Clinton. I made a film with him (Saving Capitalism, 2017) and we also produced videos for social media under the label Inequality Media, which aimed at explaining complex policies succinctly. While working with him, I had the opportunity of traveling throughout the country during the 2015-2016 primary season and presidential election, and I was surprised to see so many people who were Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump voters. I had read about this phenomenon in the newspapers but had not witnessed it firsthand; hearing a union man from Kansas telling me he loved both of them was confounding. I then realized that something was going on, especially in the incredible success of the Sanders campaign. He lost the primary, but he managed to gather millions of people, even though he identified as a socialist; to his followers, this did not seem to be a problem, even if they did not call themselves that. What they thought was that they liked him, they liked his policies, and felt that he could help them, so they were comfortable voting for him despite the “socialist” label. This was the genesis of my exploration; it was from this realization that I came to the idea of making a movie about socialism and gathered a team to make it happen.

  • 1 On Jacobin, see the interview with Mathieu Bonzom in this issue.

We started filming in 2017, but it took me several months to do research and informational interviews. I interviewed academics, labor organizers, political officials, and rank-and-file activists. Early on, I teamed up with some of the people at Jacobin magazine1 who helped me connect to the right people. John Nichols, the author of The “S” Word, was incredibly useful in explaining things that were unclear to me, as was Robert Reich.

We were going to premiere at Hot Docs, an international documentary festival in Canada, in April 2020, but it was canceled because of COVID. When it became apparent that the film would not be able to be released at that time, we took the opportunity to film a few minutes on COVID, since it seemed to us that the way the United States was responding to the pandemic was really laying bare all the pitfalls of capitalism, especially as far as health care was concerned. This issue is very important to me, and we had not found a place to include Medicare for all in the film, so we did a quick pick-up shoot close to my house in March 2020, which added another dimension to the movie.

A.B.: The movie combines personal stories with historical context and interviews with academics, and steers away from iconic figures such as Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Was this a deliberate way of showcasing other, lesser-known aspects of socialism, and embedding this in the structure of the film?

Y.B.: From the beginning, I imagined there would be three elements in the movie: the history and archival material, contemporary stories with characters, and animations for the concepts which I found difficult to describe with words. All the pieces were important, and it was a matter of finding a balance between them. I did not want to have just talking heads, or the documentary would have been too academic and not digestible for the audience. But to me, personal stories without historical or political context feel too specific. Nowadays, documentaries are often about following one person’s story; you could imagine a film following Lee Carter during his first year in office, or Stephanie Price in her involvement with the teachers’ strike. I can easily picture it, and I wish someone would make it. Nevertheless, framing these stories without a context falls short of what they can be.

I also wanted to avoid heroes, I wanted to build a collective image. As you said, Bernie Sanders is barely in the film; it is true that he is an important subtext to the film, but he only appears in one scene, and very briefly. To me, having heroes and singular figures is not empowering, it does not speak to systemic problems, things that affect everyone. Which is why I did not want to have a main character; of course, we needed characters, just for human connection. You want to root for someone, but not only for one person. There was also a deliberate attempt to avoid the more popular icons of socialism in the United States today, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, because if you tie an idea to one person, then if that person falls, the whole movement falls. Similarly, we wanted to avoid phrases that might disappear in a few months or years: we talk about climate change in the movie, but we don’t use the phrase “Green New Deal.” I wanted this film to have a very long shelf life, not for it simply to reflect a given moment in US political life.

A.B.: There was a larger goal, then, in the making of the movie, that of building a counter-narrative. How did academics feature in this? Did you encounter any difficulties in making the movie?

  • 2 Matthew Karp is Associate Professor of history at Princeton University; he is the author of This Va (...)
  • 3 Adaner Husmani is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies at Harvard University. He is (...)

Y.B.: As a filmmaker, it was important for me to have diversity in front of the camera. I interviewed very famous thinkers like Cornel West and Naomi Klein, but I also wanted to know about younger scholars working on these issues, to offer them this platform. Matt Karp2 or Adaner Husmani,3 for instance, had never been interviewed before, and it was exciting for me to be able to bring in those voices and those ideas.

I do think that documentaries right now are a good medium through which to have these different voices heard; however, it is by no means easy, and the industry itself is fraught with problems. Documentaries have become very popular recently; twenty years ago, when Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine was screened in movie theatres, it was extraordinary. Today, documentaries flourish on Netflix. They are more popular, but also more disposable, which makes it harder for them to find an audience. In my own work, I find myself making much more digestible, more populist movies than I would have anticipated when I went to graduate school. This has to do with the necessities of the profession—you have to earn money, but also to the current political context; I don’t feel I have the luxury of making artsy films that no one will see. I want to be making an impact. I think more and more filmmakers have a similar outlook and try to bring it to the field of documentary. But it is very difficult; a friend once told me that documentary is a “rich white man’s hobby,” and it is true that the industry is not made for people who need a paycheck. The funding process is impossible, you have to spend a lot of time filing in grant applications; moreover, the industry relies heavily on philanthropy or donations, and my film is not the kind that rich people will want to donate to… It is quite rare that a film like this, with such an important budget—around one million dollars—gets to be made.

In fact, the best compliment I had on the film was made by John Nichols: he said that he had been interviewed countless times for films on socialism, and they never got finished. He told me, “You’ve finished yours, congratulations,” and that meant a lot to me.

Personal Background

A.B.: Was socialism part of your own background or political involvement?

Y.B.: Socialism was not something I grew up with, it is not a tradition that I came from. I feel very fortunate that my parents were both very progressive, but this is not a label that they identified with; the few people I met in college who called themselves socialists or communists seemed to me to be doing so simply as a gesture, and I could not identify them with a definite political creed or ideology. I frankly felt it was a little bit for show, or at least it did not speak to me.

This film has been an education process; I wanted to explore what this word meant and why it had suddenly become so popular. What you have to keep in mind, however, is that it wasn’t that popular when we started filming, and this is the most fascinating part of the journey that this film has been for me. When we started, people really liked Bernie, and that was about it; then suddenly a lot of polls were coming out saying millennials preferred socialism to capitalism, the Democratic Socialists of America went from having 3,000 members to 25,000 and close to 100,000 today. They were getting officials elected; four, five years ago, there were very few socialists in office, and today there are around a hundred in various positions, ranging from district attorney to judge or congresswoman.

The movie came to be the tracing of the popularity and growth of this movement. When we started, a close friend told me: “Why are you making a film about socialism, that’s so French.” Today, she has probably forgotten this remark, and would find it odd for me to remind her of it, since socialism has become part of the national political conversation.

A.B.: While socialism was not part of your background, what did you associate with it? The film seems quite sympathetic to the ideas that it shows. Did you want to make a socialist movie, or at least a political movie that builds a counternarrative to the current political discourse?

Y.B.: I associated socialism with communism, they felt almost interchangeable. In this I was only reflecting the dominant discourse in the United States, which equated socialism with communism, totalitarianism, Cuba, poverty… I knew enough not to believe that rhetoric, but I did not know enough about socialism to understand what it actually meant.

One of the goals of the movie is precisely to let socialists define socialism for themselves, rather than confront them with the definitions that society as a whole has of socialism. A lot of people we interviewed do not agree with each other politically, they even contradict each other. We wanted to showcase those different traditions, those different interpretations of what socialism could be. There isn’t a unified definition that everyone is going to be able to rally around. All the initiatives that we showed stem from different contexts and different needs, whether it is a worker cooperative in Ohio, a union movement in Oklahoma, a political campaign in Virginia or a state bank in North Dakota.

While I do not have a history of political involvement in socialist movements, I wouldn’t have wanted to explore those ideas if I wasn’t open to them. The more I studied and the more I was exposed to people and organizers, the more things made sense. The context also played an important part; the growing crisis in the United States, the expansion of the wealth gap that intensified during COVID, but by no means originated in it, made things clear to me. Capitalism is not a path that leads towards equality. Early on in the filming of the movie, someone said to me that capitalism is just an inequality-making machine, and the more I looked around, the more it resonated with me. This is not a bug in the system, this is how the system is designed. However, I do not think that we made a socialist movie. We tried to be as neutral as we could, but the idea of neutrality is ridiculous, especially when it comes to politics. As Howard Zinn said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train,” and this is a moving train.

As to the perspective of the movie, it felt like so much of the information out there is right wing propaganda that we could get away with a little leftist propaganda just to balance it out. More seriously, we really tried to let the people speak for themselves; I did not want to include my own thoughts too much in the filming or the editing. When I showed cuts to various people, I had a lot of pushback for this choice; people told me that I should include Tucker Carson, or right-wing academics, to show the downsides of socialism. But I refused because this is the air we breathe in this country. This is the bias that everyone coming into the film will have and it is not my goal to give that more breath.

Socialism in the United States: History and Geography

A.B.: How did the history of socialism in the United States come to play such an important part in the documentary?

  • 4 Professor of sociology at New York University, he is the author of Postcolonial Theory and the Spec (...)

Y.B.: Two things struck me in the initial research phase, related to the histories of socialism and capitalism. The first stemmed from a conversation with Vivek Chibber,4 where he explained to me how recent capitalism was; I thought capitalism was equated with markets, and therefore that it had been around for thousands of years. Discussing the history of capitalism with him, which we then turned into an animation in the film, made me picture a timeline of the history of humanity and realize that capitalism was just a very small part of it. It changed the whole way in which I thought of economic systems, perceiving them no longer as givens, as absolutes, but as things that change and evolve. This was a very powerful and empowering idea, both for me and for the film. For if capitalism is only one system among many, then we should participate in transforming it, and moving it in the direction we want it to go.

The second formative idea that emerged early on was that socialism had existed in this country for a very long time. I thought that it was a foreign import, that it came from the Soviet Union, and that it could not be popular in the United States. To learn that Milwaukee had had socialist mayors almost consecutively for so long, and until so recently (Frank P. Zeidler was mayor until 1960) was a true discovery. This too made me learn about the evolution of ideas, their transformation and their impermanence, as well as their erasure from history, which the movie tries to correct.

A.B.: The film is characterized by a great geographical diversity, far from the image one might have of socialism as a “coastal” creed. Following Stephanie Price in Oklahoma, Lee Carter in Virginia, reviving the socialist tradition in Wisconsin: were you brought to these places by the people you met, or was it a goal of the movie to show the diversity of socialist traditions and activists in the United States?

Y.B.: This vision of socialism as being a coastal elitist idea is very popular even now, though it is clearly not true, either historically or in contemporary times. It was very important for me to break away from the coasts and move inside. I knew Wisconsin was going to be a major focus of the film, because I was aware of the history of the Milwaukee municipality; when I was looking for state banking, it was easy since North Dakota is the only place where it exists. But when it came to worker cooperatives, for instance, I could have chosen a number of those in California, where I live; in Oakland there are a dozen cooperative bakeries. However, I was looking for something that would challenge existing ideas about socialism, I wanted a more surprising story. And a laundry co-op in Cleveland, which is what features in the movie, is definitely not what you imagine when you think about socialism.

Similarly, I knew I wanted a union story in the film, but I did not know that there would be a major teachers’ strike the year we were filming, and that this strike was going to take place almost exclusively in red states that Bernie Sanders had won in the primary. The first strike took place in West Virginia (O’Neal) and I was about to go there when they settled. After that, as soon as there were rumblings in Oklahoma, I got on a plane and went there, and that is where I met Stephanie Price, who is one of the main characters in the film. I was very lucky in this, because Oklahoma also has a strong socialist history (Bissett), although unfortunately we were not able to bring it into the film. The geographical diversity was pivotal in the making of the movie.

A.B.: The movie is about socialism, yet never mentions revolution. Is that deliberate, and part of the attempt to “normalize” socialism in the US-American political sphere, showing that socialism can be a pragmatic solution to political problems?

Y.B.: The idea that revolution can only be violent is a specific definition of revolution and one that I wouldn’t agree with. I think you can have a democratic revolution; when I see what is happening today in the United States, I think we are in the midst of this right now. Maybe it is not as fast as a revolutionary upheaval, but I am a firm believer in the possibility of a democratic revolution. So yes, it is different from the Marxist vision of the proletarian revolution, yet to me there is a revolutionary dimension to what the people in the movie are doing. I would imagine that Lee Carter considers himself a revolutionary, and I think that he is, if you look at what he has done. Lee Carter ran in the state of Virginia and won his seat in the House of representatives as a socialist; he unseated the Republican House majority whip in his district. He was then reelected; during his first term, he was the only socialist in office, but in his second term, one or two socialists were also elected to the state legislature and the Democratic party as a whole took all branches of government in that state.

Naturally, you cannot say that was all because of Lee Carter’s work, and I’m sure the Democratic party wouldn’t want you to say that, but I do think that it is really important to be out there as the lone voice. There is a very popular phrase right now in American politics: “shifting the Overton window,” and I think that is what he has done. By pushing to the left, he has opened up a space for other people, even if those people do not call themselves socialists; the whole spectrum has been moved to the left by him and people like him, and I believe in the current political climate, this can be called revolutionary.

A.B.: Cornel West says that socialism is “as American as apple pie,” John Nichols declares American socialism is bound to be different from socialism in other countries: what do you think are the defining traits of “American” socialism? What about the internationalist perspective that is inherent in socialist thought?

Y.B.: I know very little about international socialism, so I am not sure I can answer this. What I can say is that it was very important for me that the film be only about the United States. That was part of the ground rules that I laid out for myself in planning the movie. Michael Moore did a fantastic film in 2015, Where to Invade Next, where he goes around the world describing all kinds of progressive policies. I did not feel I needed to add to that. I also wanted to go against this idea that socialism is a foreign ideology, not native to this country. I wanted to dispel that myth, and to say that this is also a deeply American tradition that goes back all the way to the founding of the Republican Party in 1854.

A Generational Issue

A.B.: The movie shows very different approaches to socialism; did you get a sense that the people you interviewed had common goals, or that they were above all responding to local issues? To what extent are they aware, especially the younger ones, of the history and legacy of socialism in the United States?

Y.B.: What I discovered as I was going all around the country was that the idea of socialism is associated with more democracy. It is a spectrum, and anything that pushes towards democracy is going to push you more towards socialism, whether that is something that you achieve or just a direction. You can look at the bank of North Dakota, set up by socialists a hundred years ago and now beloved by Republicans in a very Republican state, who want nothing to do with socialism. They will talk about the founding of the bank without ever mentioning the ideology of the people who founded it and for them there is no inconsistency there. It was just a practical answer to a problem: if we think of socialism in this way, do we need the word at all?

For some people that word is very powerful, and something to organize around, while for others it is very stigmatizing. That divide is profoundly generational. I think the cutoff is around 40 years old. This struck me while making the movie; I am 38 and I was regularly the oldest person in the room, or else there would be much older people, in their seventies and eighties. Among the scenes that we had to cut, but that I think we should put on our website, was one that truly captured this generational divide. It was a scene of a Wisconsin Socialist Party gathering in a library in Milwaukee: there were six or seven members, and they began by announcing the death of one of their comrades. And someone said: “We’re just disappearing.” This was in stark contrast to the DSA meeting I had filmed in Milwaukee a few days earlier, where you could see young people drinking beer in a park, with a few children running around. That, I feel, is a portrait of what was going on, a microcosm of the country. Those two groups are not in conversation with each other, and that was also something that surprised me, as someone who does not come from this world. The older people had lived through Milwaukee’s heyday as a Mecca for socialism in the US, yet they were not talking with the younger generation at all. At some point one of them asked another: “Have you gone to a DSA meeting?”, but the answer was “Oh I went once, but it’s just a bunch of kids drinking beer, they don’t know anything, it’s not for me.” This doesn’t mean that DSA lacks politics or organization, but clearly those two groups were in disconnect.

As to how aware the younger generation is of the history of socialism, I think it depends a lot on who you talk to and where they are in their political involvement. After Trump won the presidential election in 2016, a lot of people wondered what to do; many of those who had supported Bernie Sanders decided to try out DSA. Within DSA, there are many events that are related to the history of socialism: reading groups, night schools, which I myself took advantage of and where I learned a lot. Places where people were reading primary sources and having conversations about the history of socialism, engaging with the ideas that had been put forward by people like Eugene Debs and others. But not all of them do, and it is not necessary; you can just as well go to a barbecue, knock on doors, or show up when the teachers go on strike, and you don’t need to know about Eugene Debs to be politically involved and organize around that.

I have been talking a lot about Trump’s victory and the Bernie Sanders campaign, because this is the context in which the film took shape; but insofar as the awakening to socialism in the United States is concerned, I think a major event, which also accounts for the generational divide in attitudes towards socialism, whether you find the idea empowering or destabilizing, is the 2007-2008 crisis. For people who were of college age, it was a moment of reckoning. I have seen this in my own family. I had already graduated from college, and I was much less affected by the crisis than my brother and my sister-in-law, who were graduating at a time when there were very simply no jobs. Younger people were also affected when they saw their parents lose their jobs or be evicted from their houses. For those generations, seeing this and seeing the banks being bailed out often led to the conclusion that capitalism didn’t work, and therefore to a very different attitude towards socialism than that of older people. In a way, socialism comes easy to them.

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Bibliographie

BISSETT, Jim. Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Bowling for Columbine. Dir. Michael Moore. United Artists, 2002.

CHIBBER, Vivek. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. New York: Verso, 2013.

KARP, Matthew. This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

NICHOLS, John. The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism. New York: Verso, 2015.

O’NEAL, Jay. “The Strike Is On: An Interview with Jay O’Neal.” Jacobin, 3 January 2018. jacobinmag.com/2018/03/west-virginia-teachers-strike-activist-interview. Accessed 9 November 2021.

Saving Capitalism. Dir. Jacob Kornbluth and Sari Gilman. Netflix, 2017.

Where to Invade Next. Dir. Michael Moore. Dog Eat Dog Films and IMG Films, 2015.

ZINN, Howard. You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. 1994. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.

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Notes

1 On Jacobin, see the interview with Mathieu Bonzom in this issue.

2 Matthew Karp is Associate Professor of history at Princeton University; he is the author of This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016).

3 Adaner Husmani is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies at Harvard University. He is a specialist of collective action and the patterns of economic redistribution and democratization.

4 Professor of sociology at New York University, he is the author of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013). He was one of the early advisors for the movie and is interviewed in it.

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Référence électronique

Alice Béja et Yael Bridge, « “We’ve had socialism in this country for so long”: An interview with Yael Bridge, director of The Big Scary “S” Word »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/18007 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.18007

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Auteurs

Alice Béja

Sciences Po Lille, CERAPS

Articles du même auteur

Yael Bridge

director of The Big Scary “S” Word

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