Oppression, place of speech and social reproduction



Affirming a particular identity implies challenging hegemonic discourses and the rationality that presents itself as universal

The debate on the silencing of subalterns, their invisibilization and the problem of the place of speech has not emerged in recent years, nor does it originate in the so-called identity movements. Today one sees uses and abuses of certain concepts without respecting their premises, or even knowing the origin of the discussion. At a given moment Antônio Gramsci wrote about subaltern social groups, showing that their history “is a 'disaggregated' and discontinuous function of the history of civil society” (GRAMSCI, 1999, CC25, §6, p. 139-140). In a quick and thought-provoking statement, it is said that “for a social elite, elements of subordinate groups always have something barbaric or pathological” (GRAMSCI, 1999, CC25, p. 131). These brief passages are of great value for understanding the debate about identity and place of speech today.

The hegemony of a social group over society as a whole implies the elaboration and dissemination of this group's worldview. A specific form of rationality unfolds from this worldview establishing the necessary connection between social practices, social structures and ideology. People, groups, classes and fractions of social classes live their experiences due to objective conditions inherited from the past. Such conditions structure life in society and the social relations for the production and reproduction of this life. Certain ways of being and acting make sense or become senseless depending on social circumstances. But the functioning of economic, political and legal structures also has a certain logic of its own, and this logic gives meaning to people's actions. If we accept the premise that such structures, through the action of the people within them, constitute the social order itself and keep it functioning, then the logic of its functioning is the logic of social reproduction as a whole. Even Foucault had identified that the market sphere itself had the power to judge and validate economic social practices (FOUCAULT, 2010). Under an apparently impersonal tone, the regular functioning of the totality of social relations produces its own rationality that presents itself as natural, neutral and, above all, universal.

This rationality corresponds to the world view of the dominant social classes and fractions, since their condition within the social relations of production is legitimized. That is, this rationality is the universalization of a particular worldview, therefore, it presents itself to society as everyone's worldview, and, in fact, it is the rationality of the dominant ones that becomes hegemonic.

By accepting the premise that the reproduction of social relations provides a matrix of meanings for the elements that constitute the totality of social life, the passages from Gramsci mentioned above become easier to understand. Subaltern social groups are those that are relegated to the margins of history because the history that imposes itself as true is that of the dominant groups. And these describe who the subordinates are according to their worldview, in which those are portrayed as barbaric or pathological. If they are a disaggregated function of the history of the dominant, the subordinates do not speak for themselves, do not have a voice and do not narrate their own history. In addition, and also because of this, they do not organize themselves as a group or social fraction, on the contrary, they are (un)organized by action and by the hegemonic narrative.

Note that for the Italian Marxist there is a connection between organization, action and worldview or ideology. And that such elements are part of larger structures that encompass social organization and power structures. For the author, as well as for Marxism, the described process is essentially material and exists within the totality of capitalist social formations which, in turn, focus as a whole on the parts that constitute it.

Based on such premises, it is possible to better understand some controversies about the so-called identity movements. For decades, a set of agendas generally associated with cultural dimensions of social life gained space under a discourse of retreat from conflicts linked to redistributive economic agendas. In summary, it was stated that several social movements emerged, bringing to the fore problems linked to the identities and political subjectivity of social groups, such as the black, feminist, LGBT, etc. movements. And it was also said that these movements marked the decline of the class struggle and of the working class subject (HALL, 2011).

For the most radical theoretical lines in this discourse, what was, and is, at stake is the deconstruction of the idea of ​​a universal subject that modernity produced. This universal subject, also described as “the white, heterosexual, Christian and middle-class man”, or even “the good citizen”, would represent a hegemonic cultural ideal that would silence subordinates. Based on a complex discursive apparatus, a set of “truths” would be (and in fact are) imposed at every moment to produce the illusion that the good citizen universally represents everyone and that he is the standard and measure of the normal and of nature in human beings. Being presented as the central point of a ruler, the others are measured by degrees of distance from this point, and classified according to the deviations that accumulate.

What is not always said, and here I present some decisive differences, is that we live in a society founded on the free market, and that in order to operate freely, this market (mainly the labor market) demands people who are also free and, above all, equal. (if they were not, we would be under relations of slavery or feudal servitude). And the person responsible for assigning the status of freedom and equality to the individual is the State, which enacts the subject as a subject of law. Therefore, the universal subject that is the basis for notions of naturalness and social normality is the effect or result of the political imposition of the modern State. And what determines this process is the need to guarantee the conditions for the social reproduction of production relations as a whole. Thus, on the one hand, we have the material bases that explain the hegemony of this universal subject, and on the other hand, the consequent rationality proper to the functioning of these bases, which defines the meaning of this subject and presents it as the foundation of human relations and, finally, its understanding from the social totality.

Faced with this theoretical framework, it can be understood that the struggle of oppressed and stigmatized subjects such as women, LGBTs, black men and women, indigenous peoples and many others, is indeed the struggle against the silencing imposed by the hegemonic discourse. This has been very well handled by post-structuralist, deconstructionist and postmodern theories. However, the confrontation is usually reduced to the cultural moment of the social totality and the struggle in the discursive terrain. It is not unusual to observe an explicit renunciation of the notion of totality and materiality of the arena of confrontation.

The discourse that presents itself as universal, and which also presents a universal subject, results from hegemonic rationality. The particular elements that make the subaltern the “other”, the “barbarian” or the “pathological” are elements whose meaning is determined by this hegemonic rationality. The multiple ideological discourses (of medicine, politics, religion, sexuality, etc.) classify and hierarchically order each of the different subjects, depriving them of the right to speak for themselves. Faced with this subjection process, the right to speak takes the form of a political struggle against subordination. But, more than that, the affirmation of the particularity that defines the difference and determines the subordination of the subject becomes an important act of resistance. It is within this framework that the question of identities must be analyzed. They are built around particularity or specificity that is erased or downgraded in the face of an artificially constructed universality. Affirming a particular identity implies challenging hegemonic discourses and the rationality that presents itself as universal. Identity, therefore, is the basis for the place of speech.

The central issue, then, is to understand that the particular identity of the subaltern is confronted with the hegemony of an oppressive universality. However, it is not possible to break with this relationship by always remaining at the same point. And this is one of the limits of identitarianism, since it adopts particularism as a permanent strategy. That is, the policy of constant affirmation of the specific element (which defines the identity of the subaltern) against the silencing of the universal subject.

The problem is that this universal subject is not indeterminate. As said before, it is the effect demanded by the social reproduction of production relations, that is, by the social totality. Hegemonic history is the rationalization of the worldview of hegemonic groups and classes acting in the material and ideological spheres that guarantee social reproduction. The cultural instance does not exist as an autonomous moment of society, but as an organic component of the totality. Therefore, the fight of the part (subaltern subject) against the whole implies two necessary moments. The first is about asserting oneself as a part, that is, building one's own narrative and self-organization, and the place of speech is a fundamental tactic. At this point, identity is decisive for the confrontation against silencing, but it carries a strong corporate trait that generally leads to fragmentation. The second, however, implies overcoming the first. Beyond the affirmation as a part, it is the advance towards the proposition of a new totality or universality. More than ideological and discursive confrontation, effective political action against the social and material relations that engender subalternity. In summary, the construction and affirmation of the project, and the strategic action against, the reproduction of production conditions, since it is in the turning of this gear that oppression is produced and naturalized. It is about situating the relationship of oppression and subalternity within the totality and, from there, ordering the organization of the political subject and its effective action towards another universality where oppression is not necessary for the continuity of human relations.

*Douglas Santos Alves Professor of Political Science at the Federal University of Fronteira Sul (UFFS).


GRAMSCI, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian Civilization, 1999 – 2002.

FOUCAULT, Michael. History of sexuality I: the will to know. Rio de Janeiro, Edições Graal, 1988.

FOUCAULT, Michael. The birth of biopolitics. Editions 70, Lisbon, Portugal. 2010.

HALL, Stuart. Cultural identity in postmodernity. Rio de Janeiro DP&A, 2011.

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