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Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt: The Proletarian Public Sphere as a Historical Counterconcept to the Bourgeois Public Sphere

Colin Beckett 3 February 2016

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Set 12 of Verso's long-running Radical Thinkers series is out this week. Below, we present an excerpt from Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt's Public Sphere and Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Spheres.

In the bourgeois class, the interests of individuals are organized and implemented in both private and public forms. By contrast, the interests of workers can, since they are unrealized, be organized only if they enter into a context of living, in other words into a proletarian public sphere. Only then do they have the chance to develop as interests, instead of remaining mere possibilities.

Since these interests can be realized as social ones only through the needle's eye of the valorization of labor power as a commodity, they are initially merely the objects of other interests. If they are then directly suppressed, in other words if they are not socially valorized, they survive as living labor power, as raw material. As extraeconomic interests, they exist — precisely in the forbidden zones of fantasy beneath the surface of taboos — as stereotypes of a proletarian context of living that is organized in a merely rudimentary form. As such, they cannot be suppressed further, nor can they be assimilated. In this respect, they have two characteristics: in their defensive attitude toward society, their conservatism, and their subcultural character, they are once again mere objects; but they are, at the same time, the block of real life that goes against the valorization interest. As long as capital is dependent on living labor as a source of wealth, this element of the proletarian context of living cannot be extinguished through repression.

This state of affairs represents the initial phase of the constitution of the proletarian public sphere, namely, at every stage of historical development. Where attempts are made to fit this block into the interests of capital, for instance by the subsumption of the context of living under the programming and consciousness industry or the new public spheres of production, the accompanying process of oppression and exclusion produces the substance, appropriately differentiated, of a newly emergent block. Lenin's belief that there is no situation without some solution is grounded in this block of proletarian life interests. It is no contradiction that, initially, at the level of social mediation depicted, no concrete solutions present themselves. Capital cannot destroy this block, and the proletariat cannot take hold of society from within it.

In reality, this founding phase of the proletarian public sphere is only rarely encountered in this pure form. It is concealed by more highly organized levels of the proletarian public sphere.* Two aspects of this higher level of organization have been of primary import in the history of the labor movement. It is necessary to distinguish them, since all forms of the proletarian public sphere are the qualitative expression of the proletarian context of living and therefore tend — by contrast with the costume character of the rapidly changing bourgeois public spheres—to exclude more developed forms.

[*On the other hand, it would not be concealed by the pure form of bourgeois public sphere. It is precisely the result of exclusion and oppression, that is, precisely the other of this bourgeois public sphere.

The Assimilation of Elements of the Proletarian Context of Living into the Integrative Mechanism of the Bourgeois Public Sphere

This includes the integration of the energies of the labor movement into forms of organization that are modeled on the bourgeois public spheres. In all such cases, workers are as a rule separated from the psychic and institutional tools with which they could adapt the bourgeois public sphere to their interests or create specific forms of their own public sphere. In this sense the empirical working-class public sphere often appears as a variant of the bourgeois public sphere.

If workers try to overcome the particularity of their interests by seeking to take hold of the apparent totality of bourgeois production, of the bourgeois world, they fall victim to a deception.

For they are trying to sublate their proletarian context of living with the aid of something that is its exact opposite. They overlook the fact that the former is produced precisely by this opposition. One cannot sublate the conditions of proletarian life without sublating those of the bourgeoisie, any more than one can sublate wage labor without at the same time sublating capital.

That which is unrealistic in the labor movement's repeated historical attempts to constitute its interests without the sublation of the bourgeois social context, separate from this context, is not, however, palpable in concrete situations. These efforts are expressed above all in the adoption of ideals. “The ideals of the labor movement should be achieved.” Man, progress, the right to work — ideas take the place of a real emancipatory movement.*

[*An analysis of the process at the base of this is complicated because labor power is, on the one hand, merely an object as the object of relations of production, while, on the other, it is simultaneously a subject in that it is living labor. Its subject quality becomes an object by way of its being subsumed beneath the power relations of the bourgeois public sphere. Precisely in that the workers “consider themselves human” at this stage—without their social situation having changed — they have been overcome by exchange via the degree of reality in their actions and their social organization. Within this state of mystification, they are unable to recognize that they are the object of an organizational context that is foreign to them, and over which they exercise no control. They experience this situation in the form of personal conflict with the immediate representatives of the relevant public-sphere apparatus.]

In those areas of society where this hybrid of proletarian interests and universal, ubiquitous bourgeois norms of organization develops, it is no longer possible to speak simply of a bourgeois public sphere. It is decaying in these areas, but it still exists in this decayed state. The type of proletarian public sphere that has developed by using bourgeois organizational forms not only binds together real proletarian interests and experiences but concentrates them into a specific stage of a proletarian public sphere. This sphere distinguishes itself from the bourgeois in its external forms — the workers' association, the working-class housing estate, and the trade union.

At this level, proletarian interests participate in the movement of society. Insofar as they do, this is not a mere semblance but real participation. Not only can the apologists of the existing system point to this fact, but the workers themselves rightly see some of their demands thereby fulfilled while regarding others as promises for the future, as granted in principle. This assumption is not a total delusion. Their interests have in reality been incorporated into the social context of living—as they will also be in the future programming and consciousness industry—but they are incorporated as merely objective interests, as the satisfaction of reified needs. The integration begins with the fact that their marriages are modeled on the bourgeois family; that they employ the language and culture of bourgeois society; that they have to frequent institutions or organizations—generally centralized ones—to maintain this status quo. This results in an aporia: they are unable to abandon this manifestation of the proletarian public sphere that restricts them to a passive standpoint, for if they did they would have to cut themselves off from their experiences and interests that have been organized by it and have taken on its forms. But neither are they able, on the other hand, to maintain this state of affairs. They remain blind to the laws of the movement of capital and the whole historical process if they simply try to maintain the status quo defensively — even if defense appears to be their strength. At the least sign of crisis or of a change in the status quo — for instance, through additional political repression — this state of affairs, which has been accepted as stable, works to the disadvantage of the workers. They become the object of redistribution or the mere raw material in the process of social exploitation.*

[*This form of proletarian public sphere has been unable to maintain itself in the face of an ordinary crisis within the context of capitalism; it has been able to muster almost no resistance to state empires and fascism. In this situation, workers are not merely the result and object of the capitalist process—it is only their leftover object qualities that are organized, through which they are again linked via short circuit with capital interests. These object qualities are what are left behind as a remainder by exploitative interests. In this context, political interests as well still possess characteristics of freedom.]

The Self-Organization of Working-Class Interests in a Proletarian Public Sphere That Establishes Itself as a Separate Camp in Opposition to Capitalist Society

Self-defensive reactions have been characteristic of the labor movement since the historic defeat of the English labor movement in the middle of the nineteenth century. At this stage of organization, the workers define their own identity through resistance against their bourgeois enemy. In the process, they maintain themselves as a concrete particular. The unsublated proletarian context of living is at the heart of the development of their identity. The capacity of labor power as a commodity to “speak” and to develop consciousness — in other words, to develop itself into a subject — is lost, because the pressure, which existing bourgeois society as a whole exerts on the proletarian camp adjacent to it, makes workers politically into objects to the same degree that they are the objects of the relations of production in the economic sphere.

The bourgeois public sphere confronts the individual worker as a relation of capital; it confronts the whole of the working class, however, primarily as a state monopoly of power, as an extraeconomic power relation. Correspondingly, the working-class party organizes itself as a political party, in other words, as an extraeconomic counterforce. This level of conflict and class struggle is, however, a derived one.

In this situation, the actual strengths of the working class are ineffective. The worker’s real struggle is waged between his abstract, general bourgeois characteristics and his concrete, specific, proletarian ones. He has, however, to organize himself in the proletarian party as an individual among other individuals: the fiction must be upheld that he is, as a whole, a proletarian individual, or else he belongs in the enemy camp. He is mainly defined by the fact that he could spontaneously develop an awareness of his own commodity character. As the representative of counterforce against the preexisting power of bourgeois Society, he has to bracket out this process. He must present himself in the guise of the defender of human rights, of a finished product. In reality, he is confined within an extremely restricted horizon; in his imagination, however, he defends this “human existence” like a bastion. He has to reify himself and turn himself into an instrument so that he can fight the enemy. He does not develop conditions necessary for life, but rather combative skills, which are oriented toward the enemy. If the enemy wins, he has at his disposal norms and modes of behavior with which he fills the space that he has gained for himself. If the worker or his organization wins, he must first of all develop a new mode of production and a new way of life. This is when the actual work first begins. Before this, he has to fight for something that he cannot yet know in any detail. The most important obstacle in this situation is that the relationship of the emancipatory movement of the proletariat to the totality of society — in other words, the real historical mission — appears, from the vantage point of its own camp, to be blocked. The worker is unable to conceive of the totality of society without finding himself in the bourgeois camp. He has to choose between his own present identity and his historical capacity as a proletarian, revolutionary force that sublates the totality of society in a new mode of production.

Within this form of the proletarian public sphere as the working-class’s defense organization, the proletarian characteristics of individuals are, in their reified form, combined to constitute proletarian characters. At this historical stage of the proletarian public sphere, its prime function is to protect individuals from the direct influence of bourgeois interests and ideologies. This stage is, however, not sufficiently rooted in the production process itself for it to be able to revolutionize production. It possesses no modes of production to break through the barriers of family, education, and the inhibition of the development of proletarian experience. It can attempt to unite awareness of this problem, as it is generated elsewhere, only theoretically, in other words, at the level of mediations. The conditions for producing an awareness within the organization are different from those necessary for individuals in reality. The stronger these organizations seem to be compared with the classical bourgeois public sphere, the less capable they are of holding their line of defense against a fascist mass movement or a capitalist mode of production that is able to organize wide sections of the proletarian context of living, albeit only in the form of mass deception.

Nevertheless, important individual interests and experiences of the working class are associated with this false mode of organization. The workers cannot separate themselves from their mass organizations without also losing this anchored component of their interests and experiences. It is thus of no help if isolated, theoretically aware individuals or groups set themselves apart from the mass party or the trade-union organizations. The masses could follow these individuals only if they give up elements of their existing identification. Taking part in an individual group's theoretically formulated — and possibly correct — experience is not enough to make them do so.* 

[*One of the decisive reasons for the failure of groups of advanced intellectuals who splinter off from mass organizations lies in the difference between the mode of production for the experience of the intelligentsia and that of the workers. If the intelligentsia is in a position to very rapidly construct for itself new contexts for communication, even on the basis of its connections with groups in other countries, through reading books, or through communication among groups of bourgeois intellectuals, and so on, the experiential context of the worker is so closely linked to the organization to which he has hitherto belonged that only a very narrow margin of movement remains open for him to win new friends, change his location, and in general replace the old context for communication. If he follows these advanced groups with which he is possibly in complete agreement politically, he will be forced to give up the ways of living he is accustomed to. In any case, the sacrifice he must make in the event of any break away from the parent organization is considerably greater than that to be made by the intellectual. In general, it has also been proven that such splinter groups lose their base very quickly. In most cases, the workers return to their customary organization in time for the next election (this was, for example, the fate of the PSIUP in West Germany, and probably that of the Manifesto groups, the intellectual splinter groups within the French PSU, the fate of the KPO, the “Leninbund,” etc.). Something completely different is occurring if, for example, the Russian Social Democracy is divided or if the USPD splits away from the SPD on the question of the public peace policy. In these cases, it is the parent organization that accomplishes the separation.]

The result of this process is a state of affairs in which the workers no longer have faith in their own experience; yet, precisely because they embody labor power as a commodity, it is they who would be in a position to develop consciousness. Instead, the fact that they are always right is ascribed to the party. The latter can, however, develop only as much experience as has previously been introduced into it by real human beings. The opposite illusion is conveyed through the bourgeois public sphere: in this sphere, we see the workings of a collective Security system, the sedimented consciousness of the bourgeoisie; yet individuals imagine that it is they who determine the movement of society. In the party organization of the camp, no individual still believes that he is in a position to produce Spontaneous experience. However, the organization, which in no sense grasps the totality of proletarian experience any more than it embraces the overall context of social production, is considered the center of truth, the subject. This specific construction of a particular stage of the proletarian public sphere is effective primarily against any superior form of this sphere. The development of such a superior form is consistently opposed and impeded.

If the working class successfully organizes itself as a separate camp within bourgeois society, the potential is reduced for a proletarian public sphere that embraces the totality of society. If the organization of the proletarian context of living is not geared toward such a public sphere, this camp becomes subject to a curious dialectic: although its intention is to insulate itself from all forms of the bourgeois context of living, to immunize individuals against the latter, it unconsciously reproduces the mechanisms of the bourgeois public sphere: exclusion, pseudopublicity, dictatorship of procedural rules. It is permeated with value abstractions. This, above all, shows how remote the camp mentality of many communist organizations is from the Leninist conception of the party.

The Radical Thinkers edition of Public Sphere and Experience is available here

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