Black Power and the Problem of Institutional Life: On James Boggs’s Materialist Theory of Rights
From the end of the Civil Rights Movement to the beginning of the 1980s James Boggs, an organic intellectual in Detroit automobile unions, set about the task of investigating Black power as a scientific concept rather than a metaphor or emotive slogan. For a political concept to be scientific it had to be self-consciously rooted in existing institutional dynamics as well as composed of clear strategies a social group could appeal to in their struggle for self-emancipation. The aim of this talk is to reconstruct how Boggs thought the relationship between rights and social power. What I propose is that Boggs understands rights as political capacities to constitute effective group formations or to limit the capacities of the dominated. This means that rights are necessarily sites of social struggle and rights will the effects of extant social and productive forces. To formalize Boggs’s view I will argue that rights as such do not exist, but are always a specific form of institutional life. This means we ought to interrogate the rules and social equilibria of our institutions if we want to understand the persistence of racial injustice and inequality. I conclude that this “institution-first” mode of inquiry found in James Boggs offers an important corrective to some contemporary discussion of race and justice.