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Subsidiarity and Participatory Media: Learning from Paul Ryan’s Mistakes

April 26, 2012

Ninety faculty members and priests at Georgetown University have “skewered” the federal budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). While normally not the kind of thing I would post about on this blog, the exchange between Ryan and the Georgetown group turns on the issue of subsidiarity, which is a vital concept in my vision for participatory media structuration. I became familiar with the concept of subsidiarity through Michael Albert’s writings and interviews on Participatory Economics. For example:

…you should give priority to do things locally, if you can, and if you cannot do them locally, you of course have exchange at a regional, national, continental or even global level. This is called subsidiarity.

In discussions of participatory economics, subsidiarity is linked to a long line of anarchist libertarian thinking.

Ryan, however, has claimed that his budget proposal is predicated on the concept of subsidiarity as it derives from Catholocism:

To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.

Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.

I hadn’t been aware, but apparently the Catholic church incorporated subsidiarity into its social teachings throughout the course of the 20th century. Here’s the (very good) definition that appears in the catechism:

…a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

Well, apparently the learned folks at Georgetown disagree with Ryan’s interpretation and application. Rather soundly, in fact:

While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity” as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help — “subsidium”– when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger. According to Pope Benedict XVI: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.”

Ryan wants to employ the concept as part of an individualistic libertarianism, but Benedict’s emphasis on solidarity derails his attempt. It’s worth noting, in this context, that the definition in the catechism talks of higher- and lower-order communities, without mentioning individuals. It therefore better justifies the interpretations of subsidiarity that inform Christian Anarchism, as practiced within the Catholic Worker Movement, and Liberation Theology (through which participatory communication became an important component of Sandinista policy in Nicaragua). I would say it also justifies the interpretation manifest in Participatory Economics, though you can read a dissenting view here.

So what does all this have to do with participatory media structuration? It means that decision-making for media production should accord with the principal of subsidiarity. To the extent possible, “lower-order” communities should produce their own media. Since we need media to inform us about and comment on phenomena that take place beyond the local level, however, a media system must be scalable and co-ordinated by “higher-order” communities.  Among other things, this framework offers new possibilities for thinking about the question of funding, since instituting subsidiarity is crucial to enabling state funding of media production while maintaining editorial autonomy, a proposition that is often dismissed as impossible in arguments for capitalist control of the media.

Media reform will be more effective to the extent that reformers can offer a vision for what an alternative media system might look like. This is why it’s important to articulate a scalable model of participatory media based on the concept of subsidiarity. If we do so, and if libertarian-minded republicans are already bandying about the term, then it might be possible to hoist them on their own petard. In a best case scenario, we might find unexpected common ground for truly democratic media policy. More likely, they would dig in their heels, but at least some of the contradictions of their rhetoric would be revealed. Either outcome would be positive.

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