Kim Kardashian's curves aren't to blame for our problems

Young girls admiring Kardashian's unskinny form isn't going to bring Western Civilisation tumbling down

If you had to pick one image that summed up all that’s currently wrong with Western Civilisation, what would it show? Greek families begging on the streets? Guantanamo? The thousands of victims of child abuse that await protection?

Or an undulating Kim Kardashian in her practised, projectile T-and-A pose?

According to the very learned Dr Helen Wright, former President of the Girls’ School Association, our moral pillars are crumbling under the voluptuous threat of Ms Kardashian: "The descent of Western civilisation can practically be read into [her] every curve". And here was I worrying about unemployment (around one in 10 are jobless in the eurozone alone) and whether the new Greek government will say "yamas!" to meeting debt repayments. 

Wright’s speech to the Institute of Development Professionals in Education makes the obvious but reasonable point that girls are growing up to value aesthetics over intellect due to a dearth of decent role models and society’s (or rather the market’s) overvaluing of female beauty – which if you take a look at history, Dr Wright, you’ll see is nothing new, whatever your fears about premature sexualisation may lead you to believe otherwise.

Kim Kardashian mentioned in the Daily Mail

Kardashian featured on the Daily Mail website

But for a supposedly clever woman, Wright’s hyperbole reveals a facile and paranoically conservative analysis. I mean, is a knicker-flashing Kim really responsible for social deprivation, or child poverty? Is Western Civilisation’s biggest problem really that women waste too much time worrying about their cellulite? And if we flibbertigibbets were all in drab, convently garb, would that rid our minds of frivolous thoughts, and mean that we’d be free of childcare conundrums or sexual harassment or any of the other things that stop us from reaching the professional echelons, come adulthood?

Quoted in The Times yesterday (£), Wright dissects a Zoo cover image of Kim that has so discombobulated her thus: "Officially the hottest woman in the world? Really? Is this what we want our young people to aim for? Is this what success should mean?"

Well, I hate to say it but I’m partial to a bit of Kardashi-bum admiration myself (only in the two-minute breaks I take between tweeting bunk, re-reading Foucault and overeating oatcakes, mind). Which doesn’t mean I consider her successful. Nor a moral role model (I don’t know her, I couldn’t possibly know anything about her personal values). Just that I quite admire her refreshingly un-skinny form.

Wright needs to calm down with the wash-their-faces-in-carbolic-soap maternalism. Piece of advice for you Dr Wright: I went to a girls’ school, and far better than worrying about the nefarious influence of Kardashian and her ilk, is for overly-concerned teachers like yourself to give pupils some more important topics to think about in the first place, as mine did.  You know, like hyperinflation in 1920s Germany. Or the fall of the Soviet Union. Or what happens when puritanical societies use women’s bodies as a moral battleground.

The Bum That Brought Us Social Meltdown, however, probably doesn’t need to be on that syllabus.

Kim Kardashian in Las Vegas in June 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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What progressives can learn from Europe

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging.

The debate about the Labour party’s future has seldom been more parochial or inward-looking. Those who pass comment on Labour’s fate from the right and left of the party do so with an almost entirely British lens. In this insular universe, it is as if the world beyond the UK’s shores never existed. ‘Socialism in one country’ is back with a vengeance. Yet to recover politically and electorally, British Labour must learn from social democrats and progressive forces across Europe. There are three critical lessons from other countries that the centre-left ought to heed.  

The first is that centre-left parties have to resist being squeezed between neo-liberalism and the new social movements. Yes, social democrats should rebuild their economic credibility and espouse a responsible governing agenda. But that should not mean rejecting all ties to social and environmental activism. The networked civil society is where most political energy and vitality currently resides in western democracies. The lesson of Podemos in Spain and Greece’s Syriza is that people want to be agents of change themselves, whether saving local high streets from unscrupulous developers or working to build their own affordable housing. Casting a ballot every four or five years no longer constitutes meaningful political engagement. Across Europe, social democrats have to form new alliances in pursuit of a better society reaching beyond traditional party structures. 

A further object lesson is that opposition to austerity on its own is not enough to win power. Of course, premature cuts have weakened growth, jobs and living standards. In southern Europe, the masochistic pursuit of austerity threatens to unleash a social catastrophe. However, centre-left parties must show they would be competent managers of the economy articulating a coherent plan to deal with debt: not just net public sector debt over the economic cycle, but tackling unsustainable financial sector and household debt. Social democrats have to show how they would govern in a world where there is less money around for state spending after the great recession and the impending threat of secular stagnation. This demands a strategy for regulating financial markets that promotes the public good, tackles systemic risks and reforms banks that are ‘too big to fail’. An industrial modernisation plan would rebalance our economies away from their reliance on financial services towards knowledge-intensive sectors and manufacturing. In reforming the tax system, there ought to be a major clamp-down on cross-border tax evasion and fraud while restoring the progressivity of tax using redistribution to tackle new inequalities.

Finally, the left must not be distracted from confronting deeper underlying forces in politics. Centre-left parties are losing elections because voters don’t trust politicians to protect their way of life against the impersonal forces of global change. Europe has pitched dramatically to the right - not only towards Christian Democratic and Conservative parties, but new forces adept at exploiting voters’ fears about economic insecurity, immigration and hostility to the EU. In the UK, UKIP has now become the dominant challenger to Labour in northern England and the Midlands; last year, the Danish People’s party surged to power. In the heartlands of European social democracy, from the Nordic states to France and the Netherlands, right-wing populists are on the rise. In Austria this week, a hard right presidential candidate was in touching-distance of power.

The failure to counter the right isn’t just about poorly executed electoral strategies, weak leadership, or the price of incumbency in coalition governments: something more profound is going on. Regardless of national context, social democracy’s support base is being eaten away. The left is losing, not just on the conventional politics of economic competence, but increasingly on the vexed politics of national identity.

That said, the temptation to raise the drawbridge against immigration ought to be resisted. Flirting with a restrictive immigration policy is superficially tempting when the populist right is winning, but imposing arbitrary limits would be economically damaging as well as politically unprincipled. Instead, low wage and vulnerable workers across the EU ought to be better protected. Permitting the uncontrolled exploitation of low-cost labour in Eastern Europe has undermined the entire European project. More safeguards against agency working and zero-hours contracts are needed.             

Rather than pretending that government on its own can do everything to shield citizens and communities from global market forces, the priority should also be to encourage intermediate institutions located between the central state and the free market that rebuild a sense of local attachment, recreate respect for traditional jobs and civic identities, and encourage a spirit of mutual obligation embodied in organisations like mutual’s and co-op’s. The left must end its ambivalence about English identity in the aftermath of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Labour must not be afraid ‘to speak for England’.

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging. To navigate the hard road back to power, social democratic parties will have to acknowledge the communal attachments that give meaning to our lives in an era of unprecedented insecurity and upheaval. Only by securing the trust and allegiance of citizens within the nation-state can the centre-left win the argument for international engagement and co-operation: the cornerstone of a liberal world order. 

Patrick Diamond is Co-Chair of Policy Network. The Progressive Governance Conference takes place in Stockholm 26-7 May 2016