The Seduction of Boyle Heights: Ultra-red and the Politics of Art

A member of Defend Boyle Heights holds a sign at Self Help Graphics protesting against several art galleries that have opened recently in Boyle Heights, July 2, 2016. Courtesy of Los Angeles Times. Photo: Steve Saldivar. (photo and caption taken from

The waves of gentrification which have flooded much of Los Angeles have reached the shores of Boyle Heights; a historically lower income, now mostly Latino, neighborhood located across the L.A. River from downtown. The economic forces enveloping Boyle Heights are typical of the contemporary transformation of urban centers into Roman Coliseums in which the underprivileged are pitted against the lions of capital. 

Many long-time residents of Boyle Heights are attempting to resist the forces of their own extinction. Entering the fray, ostensibly on behalf of the community, is a traveling troupe of self-proclaimed political-aesthetic quasi-Marxist pioneers known as Ultra-red. 

One of the effects of the Ultra-red invasion, has been a heightened focus on the economic impact on Boyle Heights of a few art galleries; many, but not all, of which have recently appeared in the neighborhood. Even those galleries located in an underused industrial area have become the target of the resistance.  

Through the intervention of Ultra-red, and its affiliate groups, many of the residents of Boyle Heights have come to view the galleries as the generators of gentrification. They believe that closing the art galleries will substantially alter, if not halt, the economic forces headed in their direction. This claim has left most gallery owners in a state of confusion; they argue that the vitriol against the galleries does not take into account the complex forces of gentrification and misunderstands the galleries’ actual impact.

Their bewilderment is understandable. Art galleries do not simply materialize from another dimension dragging the unwilling forces of gentrification behind them. The galleries are the initial surge of an economic tsunami – a position that has been occupied in other communities by coffee shops, restaurants, retail stores, etc. Though the galleries are being presented as the harbingers of economic disaster, the fervor against them is disconnected from their actual impact on gentrification. 

The art galleries have become a primary target of political resistance primarily because they function as effective points of engagement for the “sonic strategists” of Ultra-red. The economics of the galleries disappear into an intense aura of theoretical navel-gazing about the role of “the artist.” For the residents of Boyle Heights, the art galleries are perceived as an economic force; for Ultra-red, they open-up a series of ruminations on the meaning of “art.”  

Ultra-red co-founder Dont Rhine has said “we love…this [Marxist philosopher] Althusser thing [that] ideas exist only in their practice. …[T]hen we can think about, what’s the relationship between the developer who says, no, we’re gonna give you better housing by displacing all of you? [sentence in original]. That’s the practice, not the better housing, the practice is the displacement.”

“Then we can think about” is not a politics; it in no way escapes the gravitational pull of the theoretical. Ultra-red isn’t about politics. It isn’t about theorizing about politics. It’s about theorizing about theorizing about politics. 

James P. Carse has written of the distinctions between what he called finite and infinite games. The gentrification of Boyle Heights is a finite game – there are distinct winners and losers in the battle for economic resources. The world of Ultra-red is an infinite game. No matter what happens to the people of Boyle Heights, the game of academia and art will continue. Different from the finite, the infinite game has its own structure of incentives and motivations.  Even if the residents of Boyle Heights are cast to the winds, for Ultra-Red there will always be more sound pieces to perform, articles to write, conferences to attend, academic positions to be attained. 

Academic faculties are divided into two very separate classes – well-paid tenured professors and lowly-paid adjuncts. The latter are almost always trapped in part-time positions and virtually never attain a living wage. In order to secure their positions, and their privilege, the class of professors use their power to further marginalize the adjuncts in their own departments. Even those professors who adore spouting Marxist rhetoric say nothing about the  inequality they maintain and further.

Rhine has skipped between academic positions, including the University of Chicago and, now, the Vermont College of Fine Arts. In the desire for academic recognition, Ultra-red has sacrificed  credibility in order to prosper within a system of oppression. They have joined with  – they have become – the perpetrators of an academic hierarchy which damages the lives of so many. The repetition of Marxist jargon cannot disguise their complicity in the further degradation of those who are most in need of political support.

In the infinite game, the material collapses into the conceptual. One can observe this when visiting contemporary art museums or galleries.  Upon first encountering an object – a painting, sculpture, or a rambling assemblage of discordant sounds – one is often struck by the total absence of any significance or discernible substance. But fear not – this art has “meaning.” How will you know? Just walk over to a nearby wall and you will discover a posted 3×5 card offering a funhouse jangle of postmodern rhetoric. The accolades of the art world accrue to those who are best at offering a “politics” which, ultimately, points to nothing other than the supposed immateriality of the concept.

Ultra-red spices their jangle of “art” with a litany of Marxist tropes. In so doing, they empty Boyle Heights, and its residents, of any material existence. Positioning the art galleries as the causal factors of gentrification is not intended to alter economic reality. The galleries function as venues for Ultra-red’s political-aesthetic; conceptual theater disguised as politics.

To whom is Ultra-red addressing their “politics-aesthetic politics”?  It’s difficult to imagine that people living on the precipice of survival have the time to contemplate Althusser,  not to mention placing him within the long lineage of Marxist theory. Apparently, if the residents of Boyle Heights truly want to understand their own situation and save their homes, they have a long reading list ahead of them.  

Or perhaps the residents can take a drive to the Otis College of Art and Design where Ultra-red is currently presenting Los Angeles Library for Anti-Gentrification (2012-2017) which is part of an exhibition entitled “Talking to Action: Art, Pedagogy, and Activism in the Americas (affiliated with the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, “LA/LA”). 

The  installation presents the elements of political information – pamphlets and videos about gentrification. “Non-artists” might use these kinds of materials to educate residents about the need for, and possible forms of, resistance. But locating the presentation within the museum’s wall removes the materials from any political utility for the community. The presentation is merely a rumination on what it might mean for an “artist”  to proffer political information. No actual facts or knowledge are being conveyed to the people of Boyle Heights.

‘The problem Ultra-red have is a marked failure to communicate, which for a group made up of would-be radical pedagogues is a cataclysmic lapse.’
-Tony Herrington (TheWire)

Ultra-red attempts to position itself as the cutting edge of some sort of political/artistic vanguard movement. But the necessary negotiation between the political and the conceptual is ill-defined and under theorized. Rhine has noted that the relation between art and its political effects “has been a constant problem for us….and maybe…I should just let it go…or maybe the tension is the thing that’s the most productive.” 

A group which views itself as the purveyors of a political-aesthetic, should have a much deeper understanding of the real-world politics through which the two realms connect and interpenetrate. The absence of this plagues Ultra-red. Their politics has an “emperor’s new clothes” quality to it – keep tossing conceptual balls in the air and hope that no one questions their political relevance or realizes that they are really meaningless puffs of smoke.

The abstract, conceptual world of Ultra-red ultimately caters to, and is rewarded by, a small privileged intellectual class that is rarely materially affected by that which it ponders from afar. The intrusion of this world into Boyle Heights draws attention and resources away from the complex forces of gentrification, and offers residents little in the way of tools for surviving the oncoming flood. 

‘The struggle of the Boyle Heights residents and their protest is material and concrete; it cannot be properly debated with art-writerly metaphors.’
Dr. Nizan Shaked, Professor – California State University, Long Beach 

The fight for Boyle Heights and its residents requires on-the-ground organizing – it requires “getting your hands dirty.” But the “dirty hands” of organizing won’t get you a show at the Whitney Museum. Ultra-red’s hands are very clean. Their “organizing” is a rhetorical gesture; its practices align with the incentives of academia and art, not the community.

‘Ultra-red have retreated so far into the ghetto of critical theory their activities have become irrelevant to anyone living and working beyond the walls of academia.’
-Tony Herrington

To some in Boyle Heights, Ultra-red has been swinging its quasi-Marxist scythe indiscriminately against the art galleries, lumping together recent arrivals with the long-standing community-based Self Help Graphics & Art. The distinctions between these different arts venues requires an understanding of the specific history and politics of Boyle Heights. However, Ultra-red doesn’t merely ignore the specificities of the material world – it attempts to erase them.

Within the realms of academia and art, Ultra-red’s reputation rests on nothing other than its own narrative. The immateriality of its politics has required two survivalist responses. The first is rhetoric sufficiently esoteric to veil its own emptiness. Second, Ultra-red doesn’t merely reject the material in its “politics.”  It attempts to root out and destroy those who join the aesthetic and the material in ways that challenge the universality of their narrative. In their  struggle for institutional supremacy, Ultra-red is not merely irrelevant to the people of Boyle Heights – they are a danger to the future of the community.

Ultra-red was founded in the 1990s by Marco Larsen and Dont Rhine. After a few years, the group, in Larsen’s view, moved away from its original purpose of affecting political change through the sound recordings of specific communities and actions. When Ultra-red intervened in the demolition of the Pico-Aliso housing projects, Larsen witnessed the group’s loss of materiality, and the abjuration of politics in favor of an ineffective obscure, self-absorbed “artism” that was of no benefit to anyone other than burnishing the institutional reputation of the group’s leader. (Which has actually worked very well for Rhine. After all, you don’t get to be a faculty co-chair at the Vermont College of Fine Arts by actually helping people.) 

Larsen believed that Ultra-red’s purpose was to utilize the words and sounds of underrepresented people in order to give them the voice they so sorely lacked. The harshness of the displacement of Pico Aliso’s residents compelled Larsen to work hand-in-hand with those effected. For his part, Rhine began distorting the recorded voices of the people  – furthering their invisibility  –  and using their pain as fodder for musical compositions. 

The wave of Ultra-red’s immateriality  – and its disregard for the lives of those it claimed to represent – had subsumed the people themselves, transforming their voices into unrecognizable sounds.  Larsen believed that sound art should illuminate the lives of the community, not obliterate them on the altar of self-indulgence.

Rhine’s reaction to Larsen’s quitting did not provoke the kind of thought and self-reflection needed by Ultra-red concerning the connection between its “art” and its “politics.” Perhaps this is why the connection is such a “constant problem.” Rather than listening to Larsen, Rhine ignored the one person who was viewing sound projects from the side of the community. Rhine’s reaction was to expunge all mention of Larsen from the group he had helped found. Larsen became a ghost – his name was removed from Ultra-red’s history, as was any thoughtful dialogue on the group’s “politics.”   

Not content with Larsen’s “disappearance” within the group, Rhine went further. According to Larsen, Rhine spread false rumors about his moral character in an attempt to diminish his reputation in the Los Angeles art community. Larsen had questioned the politics of Ultra-red; the response was to eradicate him and the threat he posed within the art community to the group’s political authenticity. Larsen had pointedly declared that the emperor had no clothes – the reaction was to shoot the messenger.  

Rather than encounter the “other,” Rhine chose to expel it. If Larsen had stayed, Ultra-red might be a far more relevant synthesis of art and politics. But the group of self-proclaimed Marxist artists was unable to apply the Marxist dialectic to their own situation. Then again, Ultra-red isn’t really Marxist – it’s more of a Lenin/Stalin soufflé. It combines the self-involvement of a Leninist vanguard with the paranoia of a Stalinist purge.

Ultra-red is now repeating this history in Boyle Heights as it attempts to undermine Self Help Graphics & Art.  SHG “inspires the creation and promotion of new works by chicano and latino artists through experimental and innovative printmaking techniques and other visual art forms/ media. Since 1973, SHG has been the intersection where arts and community meet, providing a forum for local and international artists.” 

For decades, SHG has placed itself directly in the intersection that Ultra-red is unwilling to acknowledge. SHG’s focus on the role of art in the betterment of the community reveals the social and material emptiness of Ultra-red’s political-aesthetic. The emperor still has no clothes. 

SHG’s material-based synthesis of art and politics represents a threat to Ultra-red’s academic narrative and must be defamed and expunged. Materially, a community-based organization such as SHG is not the same as the recently-arrived art galleries. Focusing on the galleries, and viewing all art venues as the same, does nothing in terms of hindering gentrification or helping the community. But it is an important component of protecting and burnishing Ultra-red’s narrative and reputation. 

Elizabeth Blaney of Ultra-red claims that all those targeted by Defend Boyle Heights (which protests against art galleries, including SHG) are gentrifiers or enablers. Joel Garcia, Director of Programs at SHG, denies this, responding: “our existence here threatens [Ultra-red’s] validity to being social practice artists. We embody community arts practice. These artists are trying to usurp that. Attacking Self Help Graphics legitimates them – it has everything to do with their professional positioning.” Garcia’s comments, and work, are far more perceptive about the complex relations between art and politics than anything emanating from Ultra-red. Perhaps he should be the faculty co-chair of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Ultra-red believes they are outside the economic and political processes they observe. They don’t seem to comprehend the effects of their actions on furthering the forces of gentrification they decry. As the deluge comes, some in the Boyle Heights community are trying to construct rafts and find higher ground for those precariously positioned. Ultra-red is playing a different game. They are not invested in the outcomes of Boyle Heights; if the worlds of art and academia remain entranced by the vapidity of their politics, their game continues. But treating poor peoples’ lives as a conceptual apparatus attune to the machinery of art and academia is not only ineffective, it’s disturbing. 


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

My Life as an Adjunct

This is more than a personal account of what life is like as a university adjunct. It is a disturbing chronicle of what can be done to an adjunct when they are seen as a threat to the rigid faculty hierarchy.

University faculties are composed of a small class of well-paid tenured professors and a larger class of contingent adjuncts who are not eligible for tenure and virtually never attain a living wage. The majority of university “professors” are actually adjuncts, who do most of the teaching. Administrators created this class; so-called “liberal” professors maintain it.

While adjuncts are always treated by administrators as highly replaceable cogs, the professorial class raises this to another level. They maintain a highly illiberal departmental caste system which, not surprisingly, places them at the top. This is a perch which is apparently so lofty they are unable to comprehend, or even see, the suffering of adjuncts all around them. 

Academics are truly some of the most insecure people you will ever have the misfortune to endure. Academia itself is a rigidly enforced pecking order; everyone strives to be a tenured professor at a top research university. The inability to achieve this pinnacle of academic perfection is viewed by many as a badge of failure.

Those unable to soar to the perceived heights of academia, remain nested in what is seen by them as the far less impressive world of public and state universities. But make no mistake, these are wingless birds with sharp talons. Unable to emotionally endure their place at the bottom of the academic hierarchy; they construct a new pecking order within their own departments. A tiny hop onto the low branch of the academic tree is enough for them to proclaim, “from way up here all adjuncts look like mere worms. We are not worms. Therefore we must be soaring eagles!” 

This strategy requires that no worm should ever see itself as a potential bird; with the same abilities, and worth, as those clinging tenaciously to the branch just above them. If a worm raises its voice, it must be devoured. That is what birds do. To do otherwise would call the entire bird/worm hierarchy into question.

Universities aren’t bastions of liberalism; they’re an alt-right fever dream.

If you are an academic reading this, the professor/adjunct relationship is quite familiar. For most others, the hierarchical structure of academia is completely unknown. Even students and their parents know little of the division; the population as a whole is kept completely in the dark.

Our current politics is consumed by the problematics of inequality. Self-designated progressives will often rely on tenured professors as voices of liberal equality, but ask nothing about the harsh inequalities of academia. Instead, the media consistently casts professors as the apostles of progressivism; bathed in the faint glow of a kind of intellectualized sainthood.

Though articles detailing the maltreatment of adjuncts frequently appear on websites such as Adjun’ct N’oise and New Faculty Majority, there is virtually no crossover into more mainstream media. When Rachel Maddow is interviewing a professor who is criticizing Trump for promoting policies of inequality, why does she never ask “How many adjuncts are there in your own department? What do they get paid? Why haven’t you fought against this stark inequality which is all around you?” The machinations and implications of academic inequality are ripe for one of John Oliver’s exposes.  I’d take a Keith Olbermann rant at this point.

My own descent into the hollows of academia began in 2006 when  I was first hired as an adjunct in the Political Science Department at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB).. Things went quite well for a number of years. My department and student evaluations were excellent, I was being given an increasing course load, and I was voted by students as “one of the most of the most inspirational professors at CSULB.” I was the only adjunct to have my own office on the “professorial floor.”

(It is common to almost all universities that adjuncts are kept separate from professors. While professors are generally given their own offices, most adjuncts are lucky if they have a shared space to meet with students. This is part of the tautological ego game professors play with themselves: “I have a better office than an adjunct because I am a better person. I know I’m a better person because I have my own office.” I’ve taught at universities where adjunct offices were in buildings even the 1950’s Soviet Union would consider “way too bleak.”)

My office was next to the Chair’s. Her conversations were clearly discernible. I had mentioned this to her when she first assigned me to my office, and she responded that she had known this for a long time.

After having been in the office for a couple of years, I overheard a conversation with the Chair and a newly-hired tenure-track professor. The Chair advised the new hire that, in terms of teaching “don’t be concerned, it doesn’t matter.”

There is no doubt that publications have become the singular measure of achievement in academia. No one obtains a tenure-track position – or achieves tenure – by being a great teacher. Great teachers can only aspire to become impoverished adjuncts. But there is nothing that prevents an academic department from insisting on excellence in teaching from its newly minted professors. “Don’t be concerned” is indicative of how a culture which denigrates teaching is being maintained and perpetuated.

Teaching is the stated mission of the California State University system, with the University of California system its research counterpart. “Teaching doesn’t matter” isn’t just a matter of indifference; it reflects a culture of disdain for the educational process that undermines the very rationale for the CSU’s existence.

The wingless bird stares longingly at the higher branches of the tree and recoils at its own insignificance. Knowing it can never hop high enough, it rearranges its ragged feathers and declares, “Teaching is for worms. From now on I will be known as a Researcher! Now I am just like the birds who look down on me from the top of the tree.”

After overhearing the Chair’s advice to the new hire, I made the grievous error of stopping by her office to inquire about what I had heard. I thought I was about to engage in the kind of open conversation so publicly valued by academics. But, as it turns out, the “free exchange of ideas” is highly policed by the professorial class when it comes to their own actions.

The Chair claimed that she was only reiterating administration policy. This was not an encouraging response. I left the office suitably depressed but thinking that the matter had reached its conclusion. Little did I know I was about to become a reluctant player in a malevolent game of Angry Birds.

The Chair insisted on an additional meeting in which she repeatedly declared how really really committed to teaching she was. Based on this newly-proclaimed commitment I asked her if she would consider, when assigning classes, to allow adjuncts to present her with the times of day that work best for them. Not as a priority, no commitment, just merely looking at them.

(Not surprisingly, tenured professors – the “Researchers” – are the only ones to have input into what courses and times work best. Adjuncts – the “Teachers” – are assigned the leftovers.)

The terse but telling response was “there has to be hierarchy.” That was the only reason given.

This is not a statement to be quickly dismissed. The Chair was not defending the organizational structure of the department; my request would not have in any way altered that structure. I simply asked if adjuncts could provide additional information from which she would make her decisions.

This is a sense of hierarchy premised on the belief that merely acknowledging the existence of adjuncts would tear asunder the carefully fabricated web of superiority. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out the horrific histories that have resulted from the implementations of these kinds of divisions.  It’s disturbing that CSULB would support and protect this view, and allow departments to be constructed around it.

I left this meeting less depressed than the first; lowered expectations will do that. But, once again, I thought the matter had ended.

I soon discovered what happens to inquisitive worms. I was banished to the adjunct floor, at the farthest end of the hall. (Retribution is rarely a subtle affair.) Another adjunct, much younger than me, was hired and  immediately given a high entitlement of courses, which required that courses be taken away from me.

Adjuncts are paid by the course, and almost all, including me, live in near-poverty. Taking courses away from any adjunct is truly life-damaging. After twelve years at CSULB, I still do not make a living wage. 

I have recently been informed that an additional course will be taken away from me spring semester. This not only pushes me below my entitlement for the first time ever in my many years at CSULB, it resets the entitlement to this lower number for the rest of my academic career there.

In devouring the worm, the wingless bird dreams of its own supremacy.

Diminishing the quality of my life has been accompanied by pernicious maneuvers designed to isolate me within the department. The overall strategy is clear; make teaching at CSULB so untenable for me that I have no choice but to “self-deport.”

Trying to force out one of your best teachers is obviously not in the interest of students. But at CSULB, students and their education are collateral damage to the ravages of hierarchy maintenance. 

There is no moral core to CSULB to which adjuncts can appeal. Those with power feel completely protected, even when they do the most appalling things to those without. It is a culture in which no one will ever speak up on behalf of an adjunct, or even question the decency of what is being done.

Behind the proverbial ivy walls, universities are hidden chambers of insidious inequality. It’s hard to know whether academia attracts individuals with extreme narcissistic tendencies, or whether these traits are bred within academia itself. That question is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this essay.

Too often the media relies on the professorial class as the voice of equality and justice. This is absurd.  Professors have the ability to structure departments by a collegiality which would mitigate the harsh economic policies of administrators. Instead, professors and administrators demonstrate how giving people power over others brings out the worst elements of human behavior. 

If nothing else, the next time you’re watching a self-proclaimed media progressive interviewing a university professor who is roundly criticizing Trump, you will hopefully be asking the question they won’t. “How is your total disregard for the dignity and well-being of the adjuncts you consider beneath you any different than the alt-right agenda?”

University professors decry all constructed hierarchies except the one which benefits them. Progressives can not fight against social and political inequalities if they continue to align themselves with those who, in their own lives, consistently wield the Trumpian sword of ruthless narcissism.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

Other essays I’ve written about  academia:

The Economic Inequality in Academia

Professors in Charge: The Lessons for Progressive Politics

Taking the Gay Out of Gay Politics

Image by Rebecca Lieberman

The claim that a group’s “rights” are being violated is a long-standing form of identity politics which aims to protect the marginalized from unwanted incursions of power. Though rights often seem the only tool available to combat oppression, the identities they generate are constructs of exclusion and constraint.

The application of rights requires that there be an existing group in need of protections. This group is politically defined by its list of “shared” grievances. Determining this list of grievances  – the rights which will delineate the group’s oppression –  inevitably engenders a central authority.  

During the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders referred to Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as being “ part of the establishment.” The comments generated a significant debate within the Democratic Party as to what substantively separates establishment from margin. But the division is not a matter of evaluating different policy goals; “establishment” refers to which organization’s list of grievances is shaping the marginalized identity and its “rights.”

The recent politics of the HRC exemplifies the highly constraining effects when “rights” are joined with assimilationist goals.  Historically, gay politics attempted to open spaces for alternate forms of social and personal relations. Problematizing the naturalness of sexual norms was seen as an important contribution of non-dominant sexualities.  In contrast, the HRC offered only the right to assimilate into those norms.

The power exhibited by the HRC was not merely the triumph of gay marriage and military service. Their power rested in their ability to utilize these goals to shape a new “gay” identity and institute different standards of “appropriate” behavior. All those who had argued for different forms of living, were now re-cast as foot-soldiers on the inevitable march to military, marriage, and monogamy.

Rights-based politics protects only those who are in agreement with the specific types of rights being sought. Those who seek to destabilize institutional and sexual norms are deprived of a political or social space, or even a recognized existence, within the new “gay politics.” The sexuality of the 1970s is now the Upside Down of gay identity. A shadowy repudiated remnant; a lurking danger to the new well-scrubbed identity of weddings and baby strollers.

There have been a number of theorists who have criticized the exclusionary aspects of “rights” politics and have argued for the dissolution of all identity categories.  This dissolution is far different than the HRC path in which the marginalized group is dissolved into the now-strengthened dominant identity.

 In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler wrote, of feminist politics, “feminist critique ought…to understand how the category of ‘women,’ the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought.”  Butler claimed that the contemporary feminist category of “women” is constructed, restrictive, and exclusionary.  She argued, instead, for deconstructing – not protecting and multiplying – the categories that define and separate people.

Butler claimed that “if politics [was] no longer understood as a set of practices derived from the alleged interests that belong to a set of ready-made subjects, a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old.” Butler offered no details of a sexual utopia; she gave no political roadmap to the new configuration. 

This ambiguity is off-putting to many of those currently engaged in gay politics who prefer the well-trodden path of “rights.”  The result has been a progressivism which continuously chases its own tail; re-fighting the same rights-based identity battles every decade.

The HRC focused on shaping a rights-protected sexual identity that was acceptable within dominant institutions.  But successive generations of young people are performing Butler; appearing less and less tied to any identity categories. The generational views on homosexuality have shifted from claims of toleration based on a fixed identity, to the disappearance of sexuality as a marker of identity. “Homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” become indistinguishable within the malleable flow of desires. 

The same attitudinal shifts can be seen towards gender.  Younger generations are far more open to an elasticity which may render the current male/female binaries as archaic relics. Race has become so multi-faceted that any attempt by the U.S. Census to appear more inclusive through additional identity categories is attacked as exclusive and restrictive. 

The emerging “trans” movement has the potential to further deconstruct identity categories. Or it might result in a series of internecine battles which will define the new “trans identity” and its rights-based protections.

Progressive politics should not be supporting constructions of identity by any centralized power, nor should it be participating in the imposition of norms of behavior. Progressivism should seek ways to further the dissolution of all identities and to end the politics of assimilation.

The arguments for “rights” are more than three hundred years old, yet activists remain solely reliant on them. Central organizations, whose existence and power is dependent on rights-based politics, will continue to ignore the politics of non-identity espoused by theorists such as Butler.  But if the cultural dissolution of identity categories continues, rights-based politics will slowly sink into the shifting sands of irrelevance.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

Are the Economic Policies of the Democratic Party Immoral?


The current intensification of social and political hierarchies is fueled by a Republican ideology which celebrates the hoarding of resources by a few, and worships inequality as the 11th Commandment. Proposals such as taking food away from the elderly or health care from the sickest have faced charges not merely of injustice but of outright immorality.

But what about the Democrats? As a party, they offer programs and policies that make some peoples’ lives better in the short run. But at the same time they are unwilling to eradicate the economic structures which trap people into needing those programs in the first place. Democrats are proficient at hurling charges of immorality at Republicans; but should they face the same charges for their own (in)actions?

The latest Democratic promises are being sold under the slogan ‘A Better Deal.’ The Democratic Party is now explicit that its standards for a just society are highly relativistic. The deal doesn’t aim to bring about actual social or economic equality; its objective is just to be better than the other guys. This seems like a very low bar. The slogan speaks the language of a brighter future while simultaneously dimming any expectations for what that future will be.

“A Better Deal” points in two directions. It is an ostensibly sympathetic attempt to improve the lives of the most needy; while it ignores, and therefore reinforces, existing structures of inequality. There is no singular metaphysical principle which can judge the (im)morality of these combined actions. We’ll need a different way of approaching the question.

Consider the following analogy:

Imagine there exists a huge mansion which, despite its already enormous size, continues to grow exponentially. Dozens of rooms are added even as you watch; a steady stream of Italian hand-chiseled marble, enough wood to destroy a small forest, and gleaming golden toilets as far as the eye can see.

Surprisingly, there are only a few people partying in a handful of the mansion’s endless rooms. The vast majority of the building remains unused, even as it continuously doubles in size. Standing next to one of the many overly-laden tables in the lavish banquet hall are Republicans and Democrats; both on their phones talking to the same brokerage houses, all focused on increasing the same investment portfolios.

Down three flights of stairs, crammed into a small sub-basement room behind a well-bolted steel door, are all the rest of us. Those who work hard but receive the least. There is no way of leaving the basement other than through the steel door, and we spend most of our time blaming each other for our inability to break out.

The Republicans are certainly aware that we are down there. But they are the ones who pressed for the original basement excavation and the newly installed locks on the thickened steel door. They see nothing wrong with the situation and lack any ameliorative impulse.  

Eventually, one of the Democrats – we’ll call her Demos – looks sadly at the door leading to the basement, experiencing a fleeting moment of guilt. Demos moves to the door, walking down the many stairs carrying a plate of her meager leftovers. Approaching the sub-basement, she loudly announces her arrival, proclaiming that food crumbs are now being shoved under the door. When someone cries out to her to open the door she glances quickly at the lock, and continues to feed the narrow slit between door and floor. Completing her task, Demos turns away, exclaiming over her shoulder “remember, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t even have crumbs!” She runs back up the stairs, convinced she is a far superior person to those still attending the party she is so very eager to rejoin.

There are a number of factors involved in Demos’ actions. There is the overall upstairs/downstairs division, there is the refusal to break the lock, and there is the thrusting of food under the door. As strongly as some might believe that the immorality of the locked door is obvious – and thus Demos’ inactions are clearly immoral – it is difficult to apply a singular metaphysical certainty to her mixed responses. We want, instead, to stay within Demos’ own thought processes.

Demos demonstrates that the partitioning of people is wrong –
to her – when she carries her crumb-laden plate down the stairs in an attempt to ameliorate the situation. This “wrongness” does not necessarily bring with it a moral judgment on her part. Demos might feel that locking people in the basement is unjust, but does not rise to the level of immorality.

Demos pushes food under the door because she believes that the peoples’ deprivation is, at the very least, unfair. But when she is called upon to destroy the lock, she turns away from the door, and her convictions. This is where the question of immorality arises.

The Democrats do not deserve condemnation because they refuse to see our current economic and social inequality as necessitating an urgent moral response. Their failure lies in the contradictions between their belief in the wrongness– call it unfairness, call it an injustice – of our economic hierarchy, and their unwillingness to substantially transform it.

‘To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.’
Protest by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Claims of moral “truths” are inherently subjective assessments. But one doesn’t need an external “truth” to question the morality of the Democrats. Their potential immorality is internal; it occurs the moment Demos refuses to alter the inequalities she regards as wrong.

Demos surmises that the situation is unfair, has the ability to fight it, but chooses perpetuation instead. Shoving food over the threshold, calling it “a better deal,” becomes the alternative to smashing down the door and freeing those trapped in the basement.

Republicans are convinced they are on a divine mission to expose an underbelly of “unworthies.” Their possible immorality is tied directly to the construction and advancement of inequalities. Democrats aim at ameliorating the effects of what they perceive to be Republican immorality; but they refuse to address the underlying causes.

For the trapped, there is little difference. We remain behind the bolted door, listening to floating bits of music from a party of Democrats and Republicans we will never be allowed to attend.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

There Are No “Self-Evident Truths” in Politics

From a mural by Natalie Frank.

The pre-amble to the Declaration of Independence begins with the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” This early promise of an America which accurately mirrors widely agreed-upon fundamental principles looks nothing like our current politics. “Self-evident truths” have not resulted in shared agreement; instead claims of their existence have led to a cauldron of polemical contestations. Why did this happen?

Though the Declaration’s assertion of “self-evident truths” was strategically useful in fomenting and justifying the American Revolution, attempting to use these truths as a basis for governance has proven to be very unstable and highly contentious. This instability is not caused by the lack of reason in any particular subset of the population; it will not be resolved by repeatedly calling into question the rationality of those on the other side of an issue.

The existence of self-evident truths has never been self-evident. They were the effect of a long philosophical lineage, emerging in the 17th century as both political theory and revolutionary strategy. The founding fathers had access to a wide range of political philosophy texts. The Declaration of Independence reads as a concise summation of English theorist John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, written in 1690. In Locke’s text, fundamental principles he called “natural laws” function well abstractly, but falter when people attempt to implement them.

In Lockean theory, a hypothetical pre-governmental society (a “state of nature”) starts out stable and harmonious with almost all people understanding Natural Law. But Locke wasn’t content with asserting that people know these laws; he also believed that individuals had the right to execute them – to apply them. While asserting that most people would be objective in these applications – almost all are endowed with the rationality required to perceive natural laws – Locke also acknowledged that individuals who were “party to a dispute” would be partial in their own case. This is where his – and our – problems begin.

To Locke, “party to a dispute” is the crucial factor which impinges on our ability to be objective. Though, at the beginning of his treatise, being a “party” is limited to the few individuals who are materially affected by a dispute, unresolvable disagreements become wide-spread and his state of nature descends into a state of war. Locke doesn’t explicitly tell us why this occurs.

Locke believed that by limiting the subjective aspects of applying natural laws to those who were “party to a dispute, ” impartial outcomes would emerge from those not directly affected by the contested issue. But this doesn’t happen in his text or in our politics. Why not?

Consider the following hypothetical situation: You receive a speeding ticket while driving to work. You enter your workplace enraged, recounting to everyone how you were mistreated by the police and, perhaps, you throw in a few charges of tyranny. Your co-workers calmly reply that you are too closely tied to the situation and far too emotional; that what the police did was a perfectly reasonable enforcement of necessary laws. In Locke’s formulation, you should rely on the objectivity of your co-workers over your own since they were not directly affected by the outcome. Though you are convinced of your own position, you are too personally and materially connected to be objective.

Let’s expand the hypothetical. In further conversations you discover that almost all your co-workers supported the office manager when he implemented a number of strict rules regarding proper attire, lunch breaks, and acceptable coffee mugs. In their responses to you, many indicated your complaints of maltreatment must be false, repeating the phrase “the police would never do such a thing.”

These individuals conform to Locke’s strict criteria in terms of not being a “party to the dispute, but their objectivity is uncertain. Perhaps their judgments are based on objective, analytical examinations of the specific details surrounding your ticket; or perhaps they come to the discussion pre-disposed to believe strongly in authority, stability, and rules, and only think they are being objective. Would you be able to tell the difference with any degree of certainty? Would they?

In our current politics the kinds of bounded, material disputes Locke envisioned have been overlaid with contentious disagreements over the larger concepts (freedom, equality, justice, etc.) the disputes are believed to represent. We are all a party to these kinds of conflicts; they are no longer about specifics but, rather, what the specifics signify.

We remain prisoners of the promises offered by the Declaration of Independence, but our politics functions within the uncertainty between knowledge and perspective. We want to believe in the existence of self-evident truths, but have little idea how to determine their content or shape a society around them.

Once Locke acknowledged the subjectivity of implementation, he could never return to the objectivity of natural law he had first relied on. Neither can we.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

An Apthorp Story

When your childhood home becomes an object of desire for the wealthy

Ozier Muhammad/New York Times

Years ago, my family fled the hinterlands of New Jersey and rediscovered civilization on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We lived in the Apthorp, an architecturally grand building which, at that time, had suffered from years of neglect – most visible in its soot-streaked façade and the accumulated layers of paint which cloaked its interior wood surfaces. But rents were very reasonable and my mother, who worked as a legal secretary, was able to afford an apartment.

The Upper West Side B.R. (Before Reagan) was a welcome escape from the unrelenting homogeneity of the suburbs. The neighborhood was a mixture of economic classes, all sharing the same public spaces and shopping at the same local stores. Weekday mornings I rode the 79th street crosstown bus to school; a route through the affluent apartment buildings of Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, past the Woolworth’s and its second-story pool hall on Broadway, the run-down brownstones of Amsterdam and Columbus, and into wealth once again and the pre-war apartments of Central Park West.

Due to its affordability, the Apthorp was home to a variety of tenants. My mother often told me of conversations she’d had on the elevator with the author Joseph Heller as he was taking his dog out for a walk. My mother was always surprised and delighted by these encounters; for me this crossing of paths came to represent the essence of a “city.”

Decades after moving away from New York City, I was recently again on the crosstown bus, retracing the familiar route to the Apthorp. The dilapidated facades of Columbus and Amsterdam were gone, as were the poorer people who had lived behind them. The pool hall had vanished along with the Woolworth’s. Each street flowed undifferentiated into the next. Neighborhood stores had been replaced by those peddling corporatized symbols of wealth.

The Apthorp had been converted to condominiums in 2008; formerly affordable rental apartments were now multi-million dollar investments. In my memory, the building’s courtyard had always been a place of serenity during weekday afternoons. Parents were still at work; kids not yet back from school. But now, as I stood outside the gate, the courtyard buzzed with a frenetic movement of aides, assistants and various hangers-on.

Severed from its history as an affordable home, the Apthorp had been “born again” as a timeless object of desire for the wealthy. The millions of dollars necessary to live there are on constant display; gleaming marble, walls of wood, and an overall aesthetic of opulence typical of a Las Vegas hotel shopping mall.

The transformation of the Apthorp is an effect of the wealthy deciding where to live based on which neighborhoods best function as signifiers of a lofty economic status. The Upper West Side had once been anathema to the moneyed canyons of the Upper East Side. Back then, the desirability of the Apthorp – its pre-war details, large rooms and high ceilings – was negated by its lack of an appropriate affluence-indicating location. But once the West Side was deemed acceptable by the wealthy, a wave of money flowed across Central Park. The Apthorp was suddenly re-discovered and could assume its current role as an object of admiration and longing.

The Apthorp is now a shiny bauble. You no longer buy a home there; you purchase the envy of others. This is one of the little-discussed effects of gentrification. Great wealth transforms objects which are of utility for many into highly-desirable representations of privilege for the few. The Apthorp is just such a representation; the functionality of living there has mutated from the usefulness of a home, to an ostentatious, and highly restrictive, sign of financial supremacy.

‘An object’s functionality is the very thing that enables it to transcend its main ‘function’…to become…an adjustable item within a universe of signs.’
Jean Baudrillard

As I stood at the gated entrance, peering into the central courtyard, I realized that if I shifted my weight to my left leg, dropped my shoulder and tilted my head, I could partially see the windows of what had been our apartment. How many others, I wondered, had stood here, like ghosts, contorting themselves for a glimpse of something which no longer exists?

The Apthorp – the New York City – I remember, has disappeared. But it endures in the shared stories of what was and what has been lost. In mine, the Apthorp is a bit dirty and dingy. Across the street, people are shopping at the Woolworth’s and playing pool late into the night; and my mother is having an engaging conversation with Joseph Heller while his dog waits patiently for the elevator doors to open.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

Interpretations (of Facts) Matter

There has been a continuous clamor from the broad swath of political commentators lamenting the disappearance of Truth and Facts in our political discourse. Much of this critique is aimed at the Right generally, Trump supporters in particular, and is always accompanied by some form of eye-rolling exasperation. But, as often happens, the polemics over “alternative facts” have obscured any consideration of the ways in which “truth” and “facts” actually function in our politics.

The Right has correctly perceived that politics is not the direct application of empirical facts to governmental policies. The programs and policies which impact individuals are often an amalgamation of facts, the interpretations of those facts and the political usages of those interpretations. The connections between empirical data and political implementation are highly malleable, often vague, and occasionally non-existent.

The malleability of the connections between social/economic facts and their political applications does not signify the death of facts themselves; it is an effect of the complexity of the issues being argued. Complex webs of facts cannot be easily mapped onto equally complex webs of political and economic relations. The more multi-faceted the issue being discussed, the greater the necessity for strategies of implementation, and the interpretations which support them.

The mistake of the Right is to view malleability as a sign that empirical facts no longer exist, that any evidentiary-based argument is false on its face. This misunderstanding is why some on the Right pursue dissimulation of crowd size with the same fervor as interpretations of social and economic policy.

Both the Left and the Right ignore the effects of social complexity on the politics of factual claims. As complexity increases, a point may be reached in which the facts are no longer discernible from the political battles over the meanings attached to them. The political theorist Murray Edelman noted, “political developments and the language that describes them are ambiguous because the aspects of event, leaders, and policies that most decisively affect current and future well-being are uncertain, unknowable, and the focus of disputed claims and competing symbols.”

‘A fact is always embedded in a theory and has to be interpreted.’
Murray Edelman

In Edelman’s view “political language is political reality; there is no other so far as the meaning of events to actors and spectators is concerned.” All “truth” is that which “actors and spectators” – all of us – experience as we attempt to make our way through a political world in which “the critical element…for advantage is the creation of meaning.”

The embedding of a fact in a theory is not its disappearance; it is a necessary element of implementation. For empirical “facts,” such as those pointing to economic inequality, to be politically useful they must be woven into an existing tapestry of “justice” and “fairness.” Politics is a series of battles in which all sides struggle to re-shape the tapestry and give meaning to the facts.

By decrying the very existence of facts, the Right has absented itself from the battles over their meaning. Progressives need to seize this opportunity. Continuing to present analyses and evidence to verify the existence of a particular set of facts is not sufficient; decrying those who don’t see those facts as being naïve is not a politics.

Social movements are not simply trains running along the tracks of facts. Progressives must transform their most cherished “facts” into politically useful tools. The struggle for social change isn’t determined by the “truth,” but by the battles over its meaning.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

Professors in Charge: The Lessons for Progressive Politics

At the heart of the progressive movement is the firm belief that, if given power and a degree of control over others, progressives would never replicate the kinds of social and economic inequalities exalted in by the Right. A large-scale test of that claim has been ongoing in our universities for the last twenty years. The results are an illuminating account of the intransigence of inequality and a disturbing demonstration of what actually happens when you give a small group of highly educated, self-identified progressives power over the lives and well-being of others.

Within academia, one of the supposedly most liberal groups in America – tenured university professors – maintain and enforce a strict hierarchy over part-time, contingent faculty known as adjuncts. This is a form of inequality which has become so normalized in universities that those who perpetuate it truly believe they are the kind of people who would never do such a thing. The workings of this academic hierarchy reveal progressivism’s fundamental misunderstanding of how inequalities are continuously constructed, justified and enforced – even by those who are unwaveringly attached to their own progressives convictions.

For the last few decades, university administrations have been replacing the majority of tenured faculty positions with lowly paid adjuncts. As a result, an economic division emerged within faculties between a small number of well-paid tenured professors and a larger class of poorly-paid, contingent, part-time adjuncts who are not eligible for tenure, have little to no job security, and no opportunity for advancement.

Tenured faculty didn’t create the original division; they were handed an existing financial inequality which they then had the ability to either ameliorate or exacerbate within the boundaries of departmental discretion. What has emerged is a highly stratified, highly rationalized, hierarchy within departments in which adjuncts are viewed as naturally deserving less than tenured faculty and are given virtually no input or consideration in the decisions which directly affect their lives. The continuing rationalization of this hierarchy of individual value and worth undercuts a basic progressive belief that the tendencies to construct and maintain inequalities are mitigated by education, income and liberal self-identification.

‘[The] success [of power] is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.’
Michel Foucault

The rationalization of the faculty class structure is indicative of the cultures of inequality which persist at all social and economic levels. The more a constructed power relation is allowed to morph into normalcy the more insidious the inequalities it generates. The philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that “the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” Without a complete exposure and fracturing of cultures of inequality – wherever they occur – a progressive political movement aiming for large-scale social change runs the risk of ultimately reinforcing inequalities which have become naturalized and rendered invisible.

During the 2016 presidential campaign Senator Bernie Sanders spoke passionately about the role of government in providing free college tuition for all. However, the Senator never denounced the impoverishment and marginalization of adjuncts even though challenging those kinds of constructed social and economic hierarchies formed the basis of much of his campaign. The effect would have been a highly progressive program which validated and reinforced the very kinds of inequalities it was designed to undermine.

An effective progressive politics must aim to expose and deconstruct all cultures of inequality, whatever the economic class or political identification of those who perpetuate them. To allow the rationalization of inequality anywhere is to validate it everywhere.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;