Antonio Gramsci was an early twentieth-century neo-Marxist who died in the 1930s as a result of imprisonment by the Italian Fascists. Gramsci described the inner-working of social systems as “the war of positions.”
To simplify a bit, Gramsci thought that labels—cultural norms—create the positions oppressed groups must inhabit. These are the structures that keep certain groups in power and other groups out. Just as those whom the gods wish to destroy first they make mad, those whom the ruling classes wish to oppress, first they label.
The labels given by the dominant culture, Gramsci thought, are internalized by the oppressed groups themselves, and then—too often—people live down to the label, if you will. That’s “the war of positions”—the powerful create labels and the oppressed internalize those labels, thus taking away their own power. What individuals do with those labels will turn into their personal oppression . . . but labels also offer a chance at liberation. That’s where the “war” come in.
Do you consent to your oppression? (The oppression is even more problematic if there’s a god involved, one who—you are told—hates the label you’ve been given.)
We get a label or a set of labels when we are born and as we age. That’s inevitable. Some individuals get more labels than others. The writer James Baldwin is a perfect example—he was born poor AND black AND gay. How do you work through all that?
Or what about: born poor AND brown AND gay AND a woman AND transgender AND atheist? Where do you start?
What about immigrants, who arrive in a new culture having internalized old labels from the cultures they have left, but then they must scramble to understand what the new cultural labels mean . . .
When you have a whole list of oppressive labels to work through, where do you start? Race. Gender. Class. Sexuality. Nationality . . . all those produce culturally imposed labels. Dr. Sonita Sarker, a scholar of intersectional oppressions, writes,
‘identity’ can be more closely described as identity-making, that is . . . process . . . Members of the organizations (that she mentions) negotiate between ethnicized, gendered, and class-based essentialisms/reductiveness and constructedness to claim grounds for action within the sociocultural and political (ultimately, existential) discontinuities and deferrals of representation.
Dr. Sarker’s point is an important one: we human beings can gather together into groups that give us collective identity and collective social and political power to battle back against labeling, at the same time providing personal empowerment. Those places become communities of resistance.