Translated by Peter Labanyi et al. Minneapolis (Excerpts).

Introduction (pp. xliii-xlix)

Federal elections, Olympic ceremonies, the actions of a commando unit, a theater premiere – all are considered public events. Other events of overwhelming public significance, such as childrearing, factory work, and watching television within one’s own four walls, are considered private. The real social experiences of human beings, produced in everyday life and work, cut across such divisions.

We originally intended to write a book about the public sphere and the mass media. This would have examined die most advanced structural changes within the public sphere and the mass media, in particular the media cartel. The loss of a public sphere within the various sectors of the left, together with the restricted access of workers in their existing organizations to channels of communication, soon led us to ask whether there can be any effective forms of a counterpublic sphere against the bourgeois public sphere. This is how we arrived at the concept of the proletarian public sphere, which embodies an experiential interest that is quite distinct. The dialectic of bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere is the subject of our book.

Historical fissures – crises, war, capitulation, revolution, counterrevolution – denote concrete constellations of social forces within which a proletarian public sphere develops. Since the latter has no existence as a ruling public sphere, it has to be reconstructed from such rifts, marginal cases, isolated initiatives. To study substantive attempts at a proletarian public sphere is, however, only one aim in our argument: the other is to investigate the contradictions emerging within advanced capitalist societies for their potential for a counterpublic sphere. We are aware of the danger that the concepts “proletarian experience” and “proletarian public sphere” can be reduced to idealistic platitudes. In a far more cautious tone, Jürgen Habermas speaks with regard to this of a “variant of a plebian public sphere that has, as it were, been suppressed within the historical process.”

During the past fifty years the concept “bourgeois” has repeatedly been devalued: but it is not possible to do away with it so long as the facade of legitimation created by the revolutionary bourgeoisie continues to determine the decaying postbourgeois forms of the public sphere. We use the word bourgeois as an invitation to the reader to reflect criticaliy upon the social origins of the ruling concept of the public sphere. Oniy in this way can the fetishistic character of the latter be grasped and a materialistic concept be developed.

We are starting from the assumption that the concept proletarian is no less ambiguous than bourgeois. Nonetheless, it does refer to a strategic position that is substantively meshed with the history of the emancipation of the working class. The other reason we have chosen this concept is because it is not at present susceptible to absorption into the ruling discourse; it resists being categorized into the symbolic spectrum of the bourgeois public sphere, which so readily accommodates the concept of a critical public sphere. There are objective reasons for this. Fifty years of counterrevolution and restoration have exhausted the labor movement’s linguistic resources. The word proletarian has, in the Federal Republic, taken on an attenuated, indeed an anachronistic, sense. Yet the real conditions it denotes belong to the present, and there is no other word for them. We believe it is wrong to allow words to become obsolete before there is a change in the objects they denote.

Whereas it is self-evident that the bourgeois public sphere is not a reference point for bourgeois interests alone, it is not generally assumed that proletarian experience and its organization likewise form a crystallizing point: namely, for a public sphere that reflects the interests and experiences öf the overwhelming majority of the population, insofar as these experiences and interests are real. Proletarian life does not form a cohesive whole, but is characterized by the blocking of those elements that, in reality, hold it together. The horizon of social experience that reinforces the block of these coherent elements is the bourgeois public sphere.

What is striking about the prevailing interpretations of the concept of the public sphere is that they attempt to bring together a multitude of phenomena and yet exclude the two most important areas of life: the whole of the industrial apparatus and socialization in the family. According to these interpretations, the public sphere derives its substance from an intermediate realm that does not specifically express any particular life context [Lebenszusammenhang], even though this public sphere allegedly represents the totality of society.

The weakness characteristic of virtually all forms of the bourgeois public sphere derives from this contradiction: namely, that the bourgeois public sphere excludes substantial life interests and nevertheless claims to represent society as a whole. To enable it to fulfill its own claims, it must be treated like the laurel tree in Brecht’s Stories from the Calendar, about which Mr. K. says: it is trimmed to make it even more perfect and even rounder until there is nothing left of it. Since the bourgeois public sphere is not sufficiently grounded in substantive life interests, it remains compelled to ally itself with the more tangible interests of capitalist production. For the bourgeois public sphere, proletarian life remains a “thing-in-itself’: it exerts an influence on the former, but without being understood.

The tendencies of the consciousness and programming industry, advertising, the publicity campaigns of firms arid administrative apparatuses have altogether different roots. These – along with the advanced production process (itself a pseudo-public sphere) – overlay, as New Public Spheres of Production, the classical public sphere. These public spheres of production are nonpublicly anchored: in contrast to the traditional form of public sphere, they work the raw material of everyday life and they derive their penetrative force directly from the capitalist production interest. By circumventing the intermediate realm of the traditional public sphere (the seasonal public sphere of elections, the formation of public opinion), they seek direct access to the private sphere of the individual. It is essential that the proletarian counterpublic sphere confronts these public spheres, which are permeated by the interests of capital, and does not merely see itself as the antithesis of the classical public sphere.

At stake is a practical, political experience of the working class: the working class, must know how to deal with the bourgeois public sphere and must know what threats the latter poses, without allowing its own experiences to be defined by the latter’s narrow horizons. The bourgeois public sphere is of no use as a medium for the crystallization of the particular experience of the working class – it is not even the real enemy. Since it came into being, the labor movement’s motive has been to express politically proletarian interests in its own forms of public sphere. At the same time, the goal has been to contest the ruling class’s enlistment of the state. Marx recognizes this when he describes the theft of wood as analogous to the propertied class’s theft of the public sphere by appropriating the executive power of the latter without paying for it through engaging thousands of gendarmes, foresters, and soldiers for its own interests. If the masses try to fight a ruling class reinforced by the power of the public sphere, their struggle is hopeless; they are always simultaneously fighting against themselves, for the public sphere is constituted by them. It is so difficult to grasp this because the idea of the bourgeois public sphere – as “the bold fiction of a binding of all politica]ly significant decision-making processes to the right, guaranteed by law, of citizens to shape their own opinions” – has, since its inception, been ambivalent. The revolutionary bourgeoisie attempted, via the emphatic concept of public opinion, to fuse the whole of society into a unity. This remained as a goal. In reality, although this was not expressed in political terms, it was the value abstraction founded on commnodity production that forced society together. The extent to which the public sphere holds society together was therefore never gauged. lt seemed possible, however, that society could be founded on something other than commodity exchange and private property. In this way the idea of the bourgeois public sphere created, in the masses organized by it, an awareness of possible reforrns and alternatives. This illusion repeats itself in every attempt at political stocktaking and mass mobilization that occurs within the categories of the bourgeois public sphere.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, after centuries of preparing public opinion, bourgeois society constituted the public sphere as a crystallization point of its experiences and ideologies. The “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” articulates itself in the compartmentalizations, the forms of this public sphere. Whereas the bourgeois revolution initially makes a thoroughgoing attempt to overcome the limits of the capitalist mode of production, the forms – for instance, the forced separation of powers, the division between public and private, between politics and production, between everyday language and authentic social expression, between education, science, and art an the one hand and the interests and experiences of the masses on the other – prevent even the mere expressions of social criticism, of a counterpublic sphere, and of the emancipation of the majority of the population. There is no chance that the experiences and interests of the proletariat, in the broadest sense, will be able to organize themselves amid this splitting of all the interrelated qualitative elements of experience and social practice.

We do not claim in our book to be able to say what the content of proletarian experience is. But our political motive is to uncouple the investigation of the public sphere and the mass media from its naturally rooted context, where all it yields is a vast number of publications that merely execute variations an the compartmentalizations of the bourgeois public sphere. What we understand by “naturally rooted” is evident in the ambivalence – one that has never been examined – of the most important concepts associated with die keyword “public sphere”: public opinion, law enforcement, freedom of information, the production of a public sphere, mass media, and so on. All of these concepts have developed historically and express specific interests. The contradictory nature of social development is sedimented in the contradictory nature of these concepts. The inquiry into the source of these concepts and who employs them tells us more about their content than do any excursions into philology or the history of ideas.

The bourgeois public sphere is anchored in die formal characteristics of communication: it can be represented in terms of a schema of continuous historical progression, insofar as one focuses on the ideas that are realized within it. But if, by contrast, one takes its real substance as one’s point of departure, it is not unified at all, but rather the aggregate of individual spheres that are only abstractly related. Television, the press, the public sphere of interest groups and political parties, parliament, the military, public education, public chairs in the universities, the legal system, the churches, industry, and so on, are only seemingly fused into a general concept of the public sphere. In reality, this general overriding public sphere runs parallel to these fields as an idea, and is exploited by the interests contained within each sphere, especially by the organized interests of the production sector. What are overriding, however, are those spheres that derive from the production sector, which is constituted as nonpublic, as well as die overwhelming collective doubt – a by-product of the capitalist mode of production – in the production network’s ability to legitimate itself. Both of these tendencies come together and combine with the manifestations of the classical public sphere, as these are united in die state and in parliament. For this reason, the classical public sphere, despite its state of decay, is anything but a mere illusion behind which one could come into direct contact with capitalist interests. This assumption is just as false as the opposing one that, within this aggregated public sphere, politics could make a decision that ran counter to the interests of capital.

To simpiify our account, concrete examples have been restricted to two relatively recent mass media: the media cartel and Television. We have not examined in detail other spheres such as the press, parliament, the public sphere of interest groups and political parties, trade unions, or science and research. Individual aspects of the proletarian public sphere are discussed in a series of commentaries following the main chapters.

It is our political interest in this book to provide a framework for discussion that will open the analytical concepts of political economy downward, toward the real experiences of human beings. Such a discussion cannot itself be conducted in the forms of the bourgeois or the traditional academic public sphere alone. lt must have recourse to investigative work that brings together existing social experiences with newly acquired ones. It is plausible that such investigative work must, above all, concern itself with its own bases of production, the structures of the public sphere and of the mass media.

Frankfurt am Main, Summer 1972
Oskar Negt, Alexander Kluge

Marxist Critique – Proletarian Public Sphere

Oskar Negt / Alexander Kluge (1993): Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere. Translated by Peter Labanyi et al. Minneapolis (Excerpts).

Chapter 2: On the Dialectic between the Bourgeois and the Proletarian Public Sphere

The Proletarian Public Sphere as a Historical Counterconcept to the Bourgeois Public Sphere

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 iiving 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. (pp.57-58)

Chapter1: The Public Sphere as the Organization of Collective Experience

The Workings of Fantasy as a Form of Production of Authentic Experience

Throughout history, living labor has, along with the surplus value extracted from it, carried on its own production – within fantasy. The characteristics of this activity are multilayered and have developed as a necessary compensation for the experience of the alienated labor process. The unbearable real situation experienced by the worker leads to the creation of a defense mechanism that shields the ego from the shock effects of an alienated reality. Since living dialectical experience would not be able to tolerate this reality, the oppressive component of reality forces its way into fantasy. Within the libidinal economy of fantasy, the nightmarish quality of this component disappears. In seeking to transform the experience bound up in fantasy into collective practical emancipation, it does not suffice to simply utilize the products of fantasy. Rather, the relation of dependency between fantasy and the experience of an alienated reality must be determined theoretically. Only in this way can the experiences that are bound up in the fantasy structure be translated back into reality. In its unsublated form, as a mere libidinal counterweight to unbearable, alienated relations, fantasy is itself merely an expression of this alienation. Its contents are therefore inverted consciousness. Yet by virtue of its mode of production, fantasy constitutes an unconscious practical critique of alienation.

Without a doubt these workings of fantasy, which are supposedly useless within the framework of valorization, have until now been suppressed on a vast scale; human beings are expected to be realistic. But it is precisely at the very sites of this suppression that it is impossible for bourgeois society to assimilate entirely the contents of proletarian consciousness and imagination or to simply subsume them under the valorization interest. The suppression of fantasy is the condition of its freer existence in present society. One can prohibit the activity of fantasy, the spinning of a web around reality, as something unrealistic; but if one does this, it becomes difficult to influence the direction and mode of production of fantasy. The subliminal activity of consciousness has been neglected until now by bourgeois interests and by the bourgeois public sphere, and thus represents a partly autonomous, proletarian mode of experience. The existence of this subliminal activity is presently in danger because it is precisely the workings of fantasy that constitute the raw material and the medium for the expansion of the consciousness industry. (pp.32-34)



Marxist Critique – Proletarian Public Sphere

Chapter1: The Public Sphere as the Organization of Collective Experience

The Processing of Social Experience by the New Public Spheres of Production

The traditional public sphere, whose characteristic weakness rests on the mechanism of exclusion between public and private spheres, is today overlaid by industrialized public spheres of production, which tend to incorporate private realms, in particular the production process and the context of living.These new forms seem to people to be no less public than the traditional bourgeois public sphere. Here and in what follows we only understand the public sphere as an aggregate of phenomena that have completely diverse characteristics and origins. The public sphere has no homogeneous substance whatsoever. It always consists only of numerous elements that give the impression of belonging together but are in reality joined only outwardly. Thus, the classical public sphere is originally rooted in the bourgeois context of living, yet separates itself from the latter and the production process. By contrast, the new public spheres of production are a direct expression of the sphere of production.

1.The classical public sphere of newspapers, chancellories, parliaments, clubs, parties, associations rests on a quasi-artisanal mode of production. By comparison, the industrialized public sphere of computers, the mass media, the media cartel, the combined public relations and legal departments of conglomerates and interest groups, and, finally, reality itself as a public sphere transformed by production, represent a superior and more highly organized level of production.

2.The ideology production of the public spheres of production, which permeates the classical public sphere and the social horizon of experience, embraces not only the pure interests of capital – as articulated via the large interest groups of industry – but also the interests of the workers in the production process to the extent that they are absorbed by the context of capital [Kapitalzusammenhang]. This represents a complex connection between production interests, life interests, and needs for legitimation. In light of this, the production public sphere is obliged – because it is an expression of an overarching production apparatus an the one hand, and because of the life interests that have become part of it on the other – to solve its contradiction no longer solely according to the reflexes of capital. Instead of the mechanism of exclusion characteristic of the classical public sphere, what characterizes the public sphere of production, which is linked with the classical one, is the oscillation between exclusion and intensified incorporation. (pp.12-14)


9.Reiterated in the amalgamation of classical public sphere and the new public sphere of production is the rejection of the proletarian context of living as it exists. This context is acknowledged to the extent that it plays a part, in a domesticated form, in the realization of valorization [Verwertung] interests. In the process, the latter’s form of expression modefies itself; the valorization interest accommodates itself to real needs, but must simultaneously model all real needs so that it can slot them into its abstract system. Everyday experience is confronted with a confusing picture: the context of living clearly becomes part of production and the public sphere; at the same time, it is excluded because it is recognized in its concrete totality as an autonomous whole. (p.17)