Passing Down The Power


Exploring the revolutionary potential of Subsidiarity and Participatory Democracy.

IT WAS AT the United Auto Workers holiday resort at Lakeside State Park, just a few miles out of Port Huron, Michigan, where, on 15 June 1962, the concept of “participatory democracy” was born. Sharing its birthday was the movement that would become known as the “New Left’, along with the organisation that would give shape and purpose to the youth revolt of the 1960s and 70s – Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

But, what has “The Port Huron Statement” and the notion of participatory democracy got to do with New Zealand politics in 2022?

The answer to that question is inextricably bound up with another question: At what level should decisions that impact directly upon the daily lives of citizens, and the communities in which they live, be made? How we answer that question is of immense importance, because the happiness of citizens and communities is all-too-often a reflection of their proximity to such decision-making; and of how responsive the decision-makers are to their wishes and concerns.

In October 1964, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement made a slogan out of the instructions printed on the forms which the University of California at Berkeley required its students to complete. It read: “Please do not fold, spindle or mutilate – I am a human-being.”

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Those words capture brilliantly the deep sense of youthful alienation to which the SDS had given voice. Everywhere institutions were getting bigger, more complicated, less intelligible and, increasingly, unaccountable. The student activists of the SDS saw it all around them in the ever-expanding universities of the post-war era. These vast “knowledge factories”, dedicated to furnishing corporate America with the highly-skilled and well-adjusted managers and professionals it demanded, left their youthful raw material feeling used and abused.

And it wasn’t just the universities that were folding, spindling and mutilating. The bureaucracies of the private sector: General Motors; General Electric, Dow Chemicals, IBM; were, if anything, larger (and certainly less responsive) than those of the public sector. Even more troubling, Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” also showed signs of succumbing to the sins of bigness. The opaque political machines of the Democratic and Republican parties had turned folding, spindling and mutilating into an art form.

What did it say about American democracy, that Jack Kennedy, the best and the brightest presidential candidate in nearly 30 years, had to be elected by the votes of dead Democrats – courtesy of organised crime? Or that the very same Mafia  “outfits” controlled so many of America’s trade unions? Not the SDS’s sponsors in the United Auto Workers maybe, but most definitely Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters!

Big Business, Big Government, Big Unions, Big Universities – Big Gangsters! – there had to be a better way! Because, as the Free Speech Movement’s leader, Mario Savio, so eloquently put it:

“There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

Stirring rhetoric! But if Savio believed the sentiments he was expressing were new, then he was wrong. Outrage at “the operations of the machine” is not a new thing, it goes back a long way. And the sort of people and institutions who have given voice to that outrage might surprise you.

It was in 1931 that Pope Pius XI issued the papal encyclical entitled Quadragesimo Anno in which the principle of subsidiarity was for the first time clearly enunciated by the Catholic Church:

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”

It is important to locate these words in their historical context. Only then can the motivation of the Church – itself a large, rigid, and highly intricate hierarchy, with a global bureaucracy to match – be rendered intelligible.

The targets of Pius’s encyclical were, on the one hand, the unchecked rapaciousness of laissez-faire capitalism ,and the amoral individualism which it had spawned; and, on the other, the totalitarian ambitions of Italian Fascism, German National Socialism and Soviet Communism, which sought to drag all free-standing and self-regulating entities into the inescapable and smothering embrace of an ideologically-driven state.

Pius argued that not only was the “body social” made healthier by governmental diversity, but so too was the social soul. Bad things happen wherever the duties of church and state are merged. Because, as the novelist Robert Harris so rightly observes: “If those with morals lack power, then those with power will lack morals.”

Historians are divided over how resolutely the Catholic Church defended the principle of subsidiarity – especially under the pontificate of Pius XI’s, Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli, who succeeded him as Pope Pius XII in March 1939. Branded “Hitler’s Pope” by his detractors, Pius XII nevertheless knew a thing or two about navigating acutely vulnerable vessels through pirate-infested waters. That two of the three pirate kings of the 1930s were dead by the time Pius XII brought all his little ships safely home is often forgotten by his critics. Also forgotten is the critical role played by the pontiff so often described as Pius XII’s spiritual successor, Pope John-Paul II, in bringing down the Soviet Union – the last of the pirate kingdoms.

Certainly, it was under the watchful eye of Pius XII that the principle of subsidiarity became the foundation stone of Christian Democracy throughout Western Europe. And it wasn’t just the Catholic countries that embraced the new doctrine. The German Christian Democrats would become that country’s natural party of government. In the protestant Netherlands it also sent down deep roots. Yes, it helped that the Federal Republic of Germany’s first Chancellor, Conrad Adenauer, was a much-admired anti-Nazi. But, after Hitler, and in the grim shadow of Stalinism, Christian Democracy was able to hold out the promise of moderation and respect. People had seen what bigness could do: the principle of subsidiarity acknowledged the beauty and resilience of small things.

Villages, towns, cities, regions: in each of these places stood institutions tested and refined by the passage of centuries; modes of governance which recognised the special needs and preferences of their communities; bodies which interposed themselves between the peremptory claims of the national, and the long-established rights and cherished privileges of the local. The gauleiters and commissars had swept all these away with totalitarian contempt, but the Christian Democratic parties organised and celebrated their return. No wonder people voted for them!

“Ah, but that is Europe!”, I hear you say. “Europe isn’t merely old, it is ancient. History there isn’t measured in decades, but in centuries and millennia. Obviously, subsidiarity works well alongside traditions as old as these. But, can it work in New Zealand? Ours is a nation which came into existence less than two centuries ago? What traditions do we have to rival those of Italian city-states, French villages and German market towns? Also, Europe is full of people: 500 million in the EU alone! In a nation whose population has just passed 5 million, how far down can power be passed before it ceases to be able to pay for itself?”

For nearly four decades now this country’s political and economic leaders have studiously avoided the question of how government – national and local – is expected to pay for itself. That’s because, in 1984, they convinced themselves that the responsibilities of government should be contracted out to the “Free Market”. Taxes could be cut, public enterprises privatised, and the burden of regulation lightened to the point where it could scarcely be felt at all, and everything would be fine, because the Free Market knew best and the Free Market would provide.

Except, of course, the Free Market isn’t really interested in keeping the water drinkable, the streets lit, the rubbish carried away, and the power on, or in providing any of the other services that absolutely must be provided if people are to remain healthy and their communities habitable. That is to say, the private sector will not provide any of these services without first receiving an ironclad guarantee that they can be provided at a profit.

And what can Local Government say: except “Yes, Sir”?

And what can Local Government do: except impose more user-charges and strike ever-higher rates?

And what alternative does Local Government have when the rate-payers cry “Enough! No more!”: except to let their communities’ crucial infrastructure rot, and put off until tomorrow all the things that are crying out so urgently to be done today?

And what does Local Government know: if not that the day must come when the pipes burst, and the water becomes contaminated, and people get sick, and some die, and the country’s mayors, councillors and managers are all lined up by the news media to take the blame and wear the shame?

It’s madness – utter madness – and it’s getting harder and harder to conceal the fact.

More importantly, it’s wrong. There is something dark and malignant behind the reality that our country no longer seems to work. Something every bit as dark and malignant as Hitler and Stalin: and just as totalitarian.

Pope Pius XI knew what it was. Remember the words of his Quadragesimo Anno? He called it “a grave evil and disturbance of right order”. It flows from that other source of the Church’s growing alarm in 1931. The forces powering the rise of Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin. Untrammelled capitalist greed, and the ruthless pursuit of individual wealth and power without heed for the consequences. Not for the rest of humanity. Not for the world they inhabit.

Do not fold, spindle or mutilate – I am a human-being.

Because the abandonment of the principle of subsidiarity (even in its birthplace, Europe) and the universal enthronement of the most successful totalitarian ideology in human history, Neoliberalism, is very surely, but not at all slowly, destroying the biosphere – and with it the future of human civilisation.

And to whom, as the planet swelters and pandemics sweep the globe, will people turn for aid and comfort in the years that lie ahead? To the failed politicians in a distant capital city? To the same political class whose reckless inaction precipitated the very crisis in which they now find themselves engulfed? To the powerless servants of science, whose fate, like Cassandra’s, was to see the future clearly, but not be believed? No, they will not. They will turn to their local councils: to the politicians and bureaucrats who serve their regions, districts, cities and towns.

That word “serve” is used advisedly. It’s an old-fashioned word and an old-fashioned concept, but in spite of it falling out of favour, both linguistically and politically, service of one sort or another is inescapable. How does Bob Dylan put it?

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

The temptation is always to serve the already powerful: the people with the money; the One Percent – for want of a better term. But, it’s a temptation that should be resisted. It is never a good idea to be found standing too close to those who end up wearing the blame. No matter how much sense it may have made in the past to range oneself alongside those who scorn the very idea of popular participation, and who consider democracy to be an extremely inefficient form of government, it makes sense no longer.

Powering-up is what got us into this mess. Creating bigger and bigger local government organisations – Three Waters anyone! – sealing them off ever more hermetically from public scrutiny; making them less and less accountable to the individuals and communities they were intended to serve; none of it has made these local services any more efficient or effective – quite the opposite, in fact.

By assigning to “a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do” the energy and creativity of the “body social” has indeed been absorbed and destroyed – just as Pope Pius XI predicted. Only by powering-down; only by adopting the principle of subsidiarity; can the sort of institutions that make the practice of participatory democracy feasible be brought into existence.

Is participatory democracy really that important? Yes, it is, because without returning effective political power to the people, there is no possibility of also returning their resources. No one involved in the management of local government will have failed to notice the way in which central government has mastered the art of passing its responsibilities downwards – while withholding the resources needed to carry them out. Such is the fake subsidiarity of Neoliberalism: making the victims of central government parsimony responsible for administering their own deprivation. Like inviting someone to open a bank and then refusing to supply them with cash.

Does subsidiarity have revolutionary implications? Yes, of course it does. It will, however, be a revolution made on behalf of the particular, not the general. Yes, it will entail a radical re-ordering of our institutions, but not in the name of grand and universal objectives. This will be a revolution favouring the little and the local. The sort of change delivered by careful and patient husbandry, rather than by levelling bulldozers and snarling chainsaws. A revolution that has no interest in cutting things (or people) down, only in letting them grow.

It is to New Zealand’s local authority politicians, bureaucrats and engineers that we must look for leadership in this revolution because, in truth, who else is there? Only they have the expertise and the experience to keep the water drinkable, the streets lit, the rubbish carried away, and the power on. Only they understand the importance of maintaining the services that absolutely must be maintained if people are to remain healthy and their communities habitable … when the pandemics rage and the skies change colour.

It was Tip O’Neil, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, who popularised the observation “all politics is local”. Now, he was the sort of old-style Democratic Party machine politician that the SDS wanted to get rid of. What those young student activists failed to grasp, however, is that the only thing worse that a full pork barrel is an empty one. And that the only way to keep the pork coming is to never let the politicians wheeling and dealing in the far away capital city forget where their votes come from.

In the end, subsidiarity is about decisions that are hand-crafted – not mass-produced. It’s about governing in a way that keeps neighbours talking to one another, not shouting at one another. It’s about individuals passing some things up, so that other things can be passed down to their families and communities. Most of all, it’s about designing government machinery that does not fold, spindle or mutilate the human-beings it is supposed to serve – and which every citizen can learn to operate.


  1. That was an interesting tour of history, thanks Chris! A few random points and thoughts:

    Cardinal Pacelli required that his flock, who were members of the Catholic Centrist Party, vote for Hitler (he foolishly did a deal with Hitler). It was this block vote of about 35% of the population that put Hitler into power.

    I’m so pleased you mentioned JFKs crooked election (seems the Democrats haven’t changed since!) because not many people know about that or refute it having deified Kennedy. I think he is only viewed in a good light today because he was shot before he could do more damage. LOL

    It is beyond ironic that the rule of subsidiary is enshrined in Article 5 of the treaty of the EU, with the EU having turned into a massive bureaucracy ruled by unelected Brussels bureaucrats whose only solutions are ‘one size fits all’.

    In parallel to the subsidiary rule there is a rule called the ‘contingency theory of management’, which states that every decision is unique and should be made on its individual merits and circumstances. So should we make local government smaller? Well, it depends on the details and the circumstances! On the positive side the Auckland super city gave us a chance to develop an integrated motorway system that is a vast improvement on the old. It gave us a city wide integrated and sewage transport and treatment plan that will remedy water pollution problems that go back a LONG way before Rogernomics. But the super city also gave us disempowered local boards, a powerful unelected bureaucrat class and a feeling of dissociation among the voters, so we now get an appalling voter turn out and buffoons for councillors elected by a tiny minority. Mixed blessings.

    Meanwhile in central government we have seen a massive 41.3% increase in core expenditure in just four years. 3 Waters offers us just another layer of unelected bureaucrats and Labour’s ‘fair pay agreement’ scheme will mean that a cleaner in Invercargill will earn the same as one in Auckland, despite having half the cost of living. So it seems they haven’t heard of your subsidiary theory!

    • Andrew I have the feeling that you wish to detract from efforts of the lower and middle class towards betterment. Your task seems, to point out the many failings, of those criticising the methods of the capitalist class – a sort of sneer of ‘Let’s see you do it better then – ‘bet you can’t.. The thought has just hit me – what if humans think best when they are so stretched that they have to concentrate with every fibre, and learn who to trust by smell, could be called a Primitive Sensitive. And watch Babylon 5 replays – they had to administer in space a domicile space platform for a large number of other beings from space, not just different sorts of terrestials. That was a problem in achieving all-species rules and social culture. It was totally new, so nothing to compare it unfavourably too. From here on nothing is going to be like it was, which has always been the case you’d say, but this is even more so now. Frankly I think my ramblings here are just as relevant as yours were at 8.48 am even with dotted with a few stats.
      But I’ll give again the last words of WH Auden in Sept.1/1939
      Yet, dotted everywhere,
      Ironic points of light
      Flash out wherever the Just
      Exchange their messages:
      May I, composed like them
      Of Eros and of dust,
      Beleaguered by the same
      Negation and despair,
      Show an affirming flame.
      (I wondered how Babylon came to my mind.)

    • Good, so the fair pay agreement will allow people to get higher wages and cheaper housing (by leaving Auckland). That should address the problem of a shortage of affordable housing in Auckland.

      • the problem of auckland is auckland..

        at first glance glib but auckland is a nz city pretending to be an aussie city pretending to be a yank city…the question is do we need or want it? is such concentration good for NZ?

    • The contingency theory. I wonder if that has some relation to marginality. When does one know that adding one more bylaw or road plan, or stadium, or bridge, is too much? I suppose it occurs when one is working out the projected profits a decade from now and could be called ‘the jam next year’ theory.

  2. Hitler’s Pope was a swine….the more historians research him, which is bloody hard due to the Vatican refusing to open their archives to the historians — I wonder why, the more his finger prints are on the Holocaust, and the various rat lines for Nazi’s to escape Europe, using Vatican passports.

    • Can’t you stop chewing on the gristle Nathan. While you do so someone may be planning other things that are shameful. The knowledge of the past can unbalance you. People who are Jewish have sought education and training and demand more of themselves than theosemore stolid. Now is the time for Jews to keep a watching brief surely. The sharpness of memory returns, wariness continue, until weariness.

  3. Thank you Chris, one of your greatest essays.
    The “big is beautiful” ideology is warned about in the Tower of Babel story. That story and it’s implications for us today superbly explained here, as he says in it “too big to fail” is incorrect – it should be “so big it has to fail”

  4. Forgive my current crankiness- I have covid- but to summarize New Zealand’s current situation in crude working mans terms:

    We are governed by a circle jerk of Wellington bureaucrats who dream up and write legislation in their Wellington bubble, which is then enacted by the Labour government, which is the political arm of the Wellington bureaucrats.
    Everything is top down and inward facing, resulting in ever crazier and more out of touch laws – the over reach and complication of alert setting 4.3.phase 2, orange setting for example, lost the public long ago for example. No the public didn’t all see the Wellington protests as a “river of filth” like Wellington did, observe Labour large poll drop after.
    Or the gender alphabet, no one actually gives a shit if you want to identify as a pineapple go crazy, no laws needed tho and you don’t have to teach it to kids.
    3 waters and health now threaten to tear away more local control to the ever burgeoning central government circle jerk.
    Core government spending is up 47% and heading to over 65% increase in the next year according to DPF. Bureaucrats clogging the arteries of life for everyone and adding more of themselves, consultants, lawyers making huge money, yet all our problems much worse.
    It’s my opinion that this government some time ago slipped in to the “dictator trap” where being surrounded by same-think (Wellington) makes the government blind to what the country really wants and needs.
    They’re essentially insane.
    Totally agree need more local democracy not less.
    At one time there were moves to decentralize more government departments away from Wellington but I note the opposite has occurred under this government.

  5. I have ants – all among the cluttered bench, they assiduously run in straight lines (not argentinian ants that set up multi-lanes – yikes). I am not sanguine abut them and watch numbly. They are dedicated, the scouts that I can see. Running along checking into the oncoming ones for latest intelligence, they touch feelers and hurry on. We need a dose of ant ingredient now. We have to check in and be sure of our purpose, and our direction.
    That image at the top struck me immediately – we’re like ants. Have our brains fried and we have run too fast and lost our purpose, our direction? We are better than ants, better than gorillas as Kevin Kline said in A Fish Called Wanda, ‘I’m not a gorilla , a gorilla couldn’t read Niieztsche. Yes he could replies Jamie Lee, He just couldn’t understand it.’ That’s us clever and ironic and protean. Let’s brush up on our philosophy, (the practical sort, that doesn’t concentrate on perception – and inform us like magicians whipping away the cloth that covers our eyes saying ‘Voila, there is nothing there’. This is just a party trick to point out that we look and interpret to ourselves what we see, and then society names it, and we can direct other people’s attention to it. Very helpful. Can we see ‘climate’ and if we name it can we decide what to do aboit iot? God says, ‘ You did it, don’t expect me to make it right for you.’

    • I’ve got ants too

      you have any tips (non lethal) on keeping them away from the cats food? Thanks in advance

      I’m serious btw

          • you have to lead them away from the cat food when the cat food is not there, and feed them outside with scraps, you will need to google ‘how to lead ants away’ etc

      • I was advised that sometimes they really want protein which surprised me as I picture them running through the sugar. Have been advised to mix tspn honey with half of borax or the other way round also small amount of boiling water, mix to even consistency. Am on way to get borax, not all have it. Good luck with that. It is good if you can put bait on milk tops or wider and then put under cardboard reasonably strong little box with holes cut in side. Put stone on to keep cat out. Can someone think of better way. Can hardly think elevated thoughts while brushing the things off your arms and they move fast. That’s the bad news, good news is mine don’t sting.

  6. Subsidiarity was a means by which the Mussolini provided 1929 Vatican City State sought to rationalise state funding delivered by church administration. Education, health, housing and welfare by Catholics for Catholics rather than via state institutions. It was the churches way of maintaining a place in modern society (and no it did not require democracy – thus the Centre Party deal over Catholic schools within Europe under the reich), the template today is probably the USA.

    • Was Catholic education the connection that brought the Catholic church too close to the Nazis and raised bitterness against the church? It seems like they are sucking on a lemon when the subject comes up.

      • of course religion supports authoritarianism, the catholics supported the nazis and evangelicals support neo-nazis….
        because they are about hierarchy and control which god botherers need to foist their rules on people, rules which have no other appeal so need to be imposed.

      • The Catholic laity based Centre Party sought to apply subsidiarity as self-preservation within the reich, as per independence within a democracy where they are not majority (as USA). The policy was designed as one for all local political environments.

        As to the politics of the 1930’s, the Church (Catholic and Lutheran) had the problem that resistance to fascist nationalism was with the secular left/communist and socialist (the non Catholic centre was in decline).

  7. The points made by a lot of the guys on this thread in regards to democracy are very interesting. The reason why I personally believe in democracy is because unless one partakes in the law making process in his or her own Homeland, one does become somewhat of a puppet for those who do attain this type of power. Unfortunately, though, extreme social legislation does not follow a democratic road in any so-called democratic nation. This will only change if the ultra liberal laws which have been enacted, spawns a rotten culture at some point in the future.

  8. I’m going to try and add something sensible here but may fail. The general thrust of all this is big is not necessarily better but governments try to correct issues like water poverty anything, by sidelining local authorities and doing it itself. Now this would be great if Governments were capable of nuts and bolts stuff but they’re useless at it. The other side of the coin sees government happy to let local authorities fix stuff but not fund them properly, or flog the hard bits to privatisation and we know what happens there. The way government deals with it is by telling local authorities to pay for it with rates and if that doesn’t work you’re not doing your job. Of course there’s never enough money. Where government could save everyone some pain would be to somehow support and help local councils etc get better people or educate those who are elected but know fuck all. Governments need to be honest in their funding but aren’t. They want to get elected so they lie. What is not their fault is our population. We’re the size of Sydney but are trying to finance a country with difficult terrain, a spread out population and trying to maintain a defence force. We can’t afford to do it all but we all demand it. If we want a good lifestyle we will need to encourage all those rich businesses people you all hate, and we need to be way more clever with what resources we have including people. I’m not holding my breath.

    • Good thinking New View. Working together with designated areas, and more involvement with Local Bodies leaders, they shouyld be able to do many of the basic things and get set up methodology. I am sure that local bodies share info and methods but I thunk there will be a lot of overlap.

      Mayors for employment. They got together to see what they could do.

      I think that local councils are closer to the coalface than central government.
      Can we get behind these elected people and form working groups in regions that draw in the keen and the committed and informed and information-seekers and get somewhere. Central government when it stepped back in Roger Douglas’ time showed how out of touch it was and still is. – with real people, not just the ones wangling the contracts, getting the big jobs and pay outs. These are the children of the doers and clever strivers who have done well, now the kids come along and pick up the management jobs say at the ports that their fathers used to work at etc.

      And the bureaucrats are a division between the people and the management of the country. Ordinary people can get a reasonable education and do the jobs going to overseas butterflies.

  9. Very insightful Chris, real food for thought to those of us less aware of the origins and importance of subsidiarity.

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