Pete Buttigieg, Joseph Buttigieg, and Civil Society

Wesley Cheek
Dec 5, 2019 · 8 min read

In the Autumn of 1995 one of America’s foremost scholars on Antonio Gramsci wrote, “Theoretically, the proponent of liberalism will argue that the social and economic advantages enjoyed by the bourgeois…can be challenged, attenuated, or even erased through the initiatives and activities that everyone is free to undertake within the sphere of civil society — as long as the ‘rules of the game’… are observed.” It is unlikely that the man who wrote those words, Joseph Buttigieg, knew that twenty-four years later his son Pete would run for president as a leading proponent of both liberalism and the rules of the game.

Antonio Gramsci was a rare gift bestowed to the world in a time of great need. He was born in 1891 with a malformation of his spine and numerous health problems to a family constantly in debt and on the run. Growing up in Sardinia, Gramsci nurtured a virile dissatisfaction with the state of society. The young Gramsci vibrated with rage at the conditions he was forced to live under in the Italian hinterland:

The rebellious instinct which, when I was a child, was directed against the rich because I was unable to pursue my studies-I, who obtained a 10 in all subjects in elementary school-whereas the sons of the butcher, the pharmacist, the shopkeeper all went to school well-dressed. That rebellious instinct grew against all the rich people who oppressed the peasants of Sardinia; and at that time I thought that it was necessary to struggle for the national independence of the region: “Drive the mainlanders to the sea!”

This indignation, keen eye for injustice, and an unconquerable mind would lead Gramsci first to the mainland of Italy where he became a Marxist student and journalist, to Russia as a representative of the Italian Communist Party, and finally into Mussolini’s prison where he would die at the age of forty-seven. The fascist prosecutor who locked Gramsci away for the rest of his life stated that the goal was to “break his mind.” This proved impossible. As his already unwell body suffered to the point that his teeth fell out, he stopped being able to digest food, and his head hurt so badly he beat it against the walls of his cell for relief, Gramsci never stopped using his incredible mind. In one of the true feats of human resiliency Gramsci wrote what we now know as The Prison Notebooks, a three thousand-page meditation on the state of history, philosophy, and the structure of society. He did this with very little resources and under the threat of severe repercussions. It is a miracle that we have these notebooks at all. As he lay dying Gramsci had to distract a guard so that his cellmate could hide his notebooks in the bottom of a trunk.

The Prison Notebooks had only been available in English in fragments until Joseph Buttigieg, a literary scholar from Malta teaching at Notre Dame University, dedicated his life to translating them in their entirety. This massive translation is itself a labor of incredible dedication. The amount of time and mental fortitude spent pouring over three-thousand pages of complex, disparate thought, and then rendering all of it powerfully, substantively, and compellingly into another language required amazing fortitude. This process also gave Joseph Buttigieg a keen insight into the ideas of Gramsci and an understanding of how those ideas could be applied into analysis of our modern world.

I’m not convinced that the next step in this piece is fair. Joseph Buttigieg passed away in January of 2019. Several weeks later his son Pete declared his run for the presidency. I know nothing of their personal lives. I can only make the assumption that Joseph was a great father, and Pete was a wonderful son. What I am convinced of is that the analysis of our society that Joseph Buttigieg developed by living daily with the work of Gramsci provides a startling insight into the political career of Pete Buttigieg.

I want to focus on one particular article from Joseph Buttigieg that he published in 1995 entitled “Gramsci On Civil Society.” It is Gramsci who brings us one prominent interpretation of the term ‘civil society’ and it was Joseph Buttigieg who used this concept to reflect on modern society. For Gramsci, civil society was entangled in his theory of hegemony. That is to say that the values of bourgeoise society not only became the common sense of the masses, but that those values also were essential in upholding a system of government. It is often incorrectly understood that Gramsci thought of civil society as something separate from government. On the contrary, civil society is the glue at the center of the relations of power that connects government entities, social classes, public institutions, and other dominant actors.

Here is where we come to the crux of the issue, the seemingly incongruous nexus at which Joseph Buttigieg seems to explain his son Pete’s political trajectory. Gramsci understood civil society as the means by which bourgeoise values injected themselves into the political structure so that our public life would serve as a replication machine for those same bourgeoise values. Here is the crucial part — this power to control that machinery of government was only accessible to those who could embody and express those values.

Pete Buttigieg graduated from St. Joseph High School, a prep-school located next to the Notre Dame campus. He was valedictorian. He went to Harvard and became president of the Harvard Institute of Politics’ Student Advisory Committee. After graduating Magna Cum Laude and being elected Phi Beta Kappa, he received a Rhodes Scholarship and went to study at Oxford. Pete Buttigieg is not only familiar with bourgeoise values, he springs from their deep heart’s core. And here is where we come to the sticking point: if the dominant class is writing the rules of the game, and enforcing the rules of the game then the only people who have access to political power — real political power anyway — have no interest in transforming the game itself. As Joseph Buttigieg framed the situation:

…the rules of the game were established by the dominant class and are themselves an integral part of what needs to be transformed before the fundamental principles of freedom and justice can be extended to the point of eliminating all forms of subalternity… Gramsci would go on to argue, the very fact that there exists a coercive apparatus to ensure compliance with the rules of the game is itself indicative of the non-universal character of the liberal/bourgeois state, notwithstanding its appeals to universal principles.

And here is the ditch that Pete Buttigieg finds himself rooting around in at the moment. The liberalism that he subscribes to and the bourgeois values that he represents claim to be uplifting for all people, a balm to the oppressed, and a hope to the locked-down, but they can never be that because real political power, and therefor real liberation, exists outside of the grasp of the vast majority of people in the world. What the civil society, as Gramsci regards it, does is to convince everyone otherwise, to hold the whole operation together at the seams even as those seams start to leak. And leak they certainly do. Buttigieg has spent the past week on a tour of the South, trying to make up lost ground, especially with African Americans. Yet it is the subaltern who most keenly realize their own status, and thereby have the ability to see through this arrangement. Over and above Pete Buttigieg’s glaringly white affect, his lack of popularity with African American voters may have to do with the rules of the game being all to clearly recognizable at this point.

When Pete Buttigieg tries to explain how Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter share similar concerns, he strains the credulity of anyone listening who has real lived experience of being in fear of the police. Yet, the police are in charge of enforcing bourgeois values and are constitutive of civil society so for someone who’s position relies on the stability of that same civil society, the police must be defended. The interesting balance here is that hegemony functions by obscuring the machinations of raw power, so Mayor Pete must also say a piece about social justice. This balance is delicate and can be infuriating to anyone who exists on the outside of this power structure, those in the subaltern position. However, it is this balance that is central to the maintenance of hegemony, the protection of civil society, and therefore the continuation of the existing power structure.

After graduating from Harvard and attending Oxford, Pete Buttigieg went to work on a number of Democratic political campaigns and found a job at the Chicago office of McKinsey & Company. McKinsey & Company are a global management and consulting firm base out of New York who have their hands in the post-war economy of Afghanistan, post-colonial economies around the world, and the prison cells of detained children on the U.S. Mexico border. While Pete was working at McKinsey he also volunteered for President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He has said that it was this volunteer work that inspired him to join the U.S. Naval Reserves in 2009. In 2011 Pete Buttigieg became Mayor Pete of South Bend, Indiana, a small college town. He left his position for seven months to serve in the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Here, really, is the nexus of what Gramsci meant by civil society. We have in Pete Buttigieg the fusion of bourgeois values, political power, military violence, and the inscrutable liberal belief that all of these things together can bring freedom for all people, universally and fairly. This belief is self-serving, and cynical, but it has the advantage of only having to really fool itself and a limited number of adherents. As Joseph Buttigieg writes:

Civil society is not some kind of benign or neutral zone where different elements of society operate and compete freely and on equal terms, regardless of who holds a predominance of power in government. That would be the liberal view, which misleadingly portrays the formal restraints imposed upon the use of force held in reserve by the governmental apparatus of the state as a boundary line that demarcates the separation between the state and civil society.

What Pete Buttigieg actually represents is bourgeois society — those who hold the power in society — exerting their dominance over political society by exercising their leadership in the realm of civil society. This leadership comes from access to elite institutions, networks of powerful actors, and permission by self-congratulatory adherents to the same bourgeois ideology. Pete Buttigieg’s leadership can never lead to liberation for the subaltern, the working-class, or for anyone else outside of the existing power structure. Again, we can refer back to Joseph Buttigieg on this dynamic:

(Gramsci’s) work reveals the limits, insufficiencies, and exclusionary character of the democratic systems we inhabit, exposing, as it does, how and why subaltern groups are denied access to power. Hegemony is noncoercive power, but it is power none the-less; indeed, the flexible, and often camouflaged, apparatuses of hegemony provide the dominant groups in society with the most effective protection against a successful frontal attack from the subaltern classes.

I only know Joseph Buttigieg through his work as a scholar. I only know Pete Buttigieg through his role as a presidential candidate. I do not intend to make any commentary on their relationship as father and son, as I know those are far too complex for outside judgement. What I am aiming for is utilizing Joseph Buttigieg’s work as a brilliant and preceptive scholar who understood our current political situation very well. His translation and analysis of Gramsci’s work is invaluable to our understanding of the concept of civil society and hegemony. We could take all of this as a critical evaluation of the limits of criticizing power while operating within elite institutions. Or, we could dramatize it as a complex relationship between father and son. In the end, we might just have to take it for what it is, two people who lived in the same house each having a very clear idea of how the world works.

Wesley Cheek

Sociology PhD. I research disasters and study critical urban theory. I live in Kyoto and New Orleans

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