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Beyond nostalgia: understanding socialism markets

From Che Guevara t-shirts and Honnecker’s Hostel to Mao mugs and Good Bye, Lenin!—why do millions of consumers in China, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and other former socialist societies still insist on the superiority of socialist products and brands? The standard explanation offered by consumer sociologists and historians is that these thriving socialism markets stimulate political opposition, a yearning for the “better” socialist past. From this perspective, when consumers interact creatively and playfully with the socialist past and use highly emotional consumption dramas to revitalize themselves through socialist products and brands, they actively critique, resist, and in the process, invariably destabilize the capitalist present.

Although this explanation is valuable, it has surprisingly little to say about why socialism today is predominantly transported as a market-based consumption experience and what alternative modes for expressing the relationship between the socialist past and the capitalist presence are muted over time and why. What kind of socialisms are transported in these commercial images and meanings and what is their impact on the conditions of capitalism?

To explore this question in greater detail, we analyzed the German Ostalgie market, one of the largest socialism markets in the world. The Ostalgie market emerged after German reunification in 1991. When the Wall came down and consumers were finally able to buy long desired Western goods, socialist products and brands quickly disappeared from the East German supermarket shelves. Soon after the reunification of East and West Germany, however, these once rejected consumer goods re-appeared and are still thriving today.

Most consumer sociologists have taken this remarkable renaissance of East German products and brands as incontrovertible evidence for East Germans’ discontent with social and economic conditions in post-reunified Germany. Gathering the family around a simple socialist meal, rejecting West German food and lifestyle brands, or vacationing in one of the no-frills GDR-themed retro hotels are seen as powerful practices of resistance against West German preferences for efficiency, hyper-individualism, and status consumption.

In sharp contrast, however, we observed that the Ostalgie market’s romantic venerations of socialism changed considerably over time, that they were crafted in West German marketing departments, advertising agencies and film studios who retailored political dissent into consumable emotional-nostalgic market resources to restore political unity in four phases, each triggered by a historical disruption: the privatization of East German industry (1991-2000), the dismantling of German social security (1999-2005), the publication of Stasi informants (2003-2009), and the Euro and global financial crisis (from 2008).

In each of these phases, a nostalgic image of the socialist past was crafted from East German political critiques of capitalism and offered for mass-market consumption.

In each of these phases, a nostalgic image of the socialist past was crafted from East German political critiques of capitalism and offered for mass-market consumption. For example, consider how the 2003 iconic Ostalgie movie Good Bye, Lenin! transformed East German critiques of West German individualism into a banalized contrast between capitalism’s shallow consumer culture and socialism’s caring neighbourhood idyll. Importantly, this highly therapeutic narrative didn’t naturally emerge from the memories of former GDR citizens. Rather, it was carefully crafted and popularized by a team of West German script writers, producers, and promoters—at a time when West German politicians, journalists, and intellectuals seeking to critically unpack the activities of the famous “Stasi” (Ministry for State Security) condemned the GDR as a ruthless surveillance state. This re-imagination of East Germany then could be channeled through consumption by revalorizing socialist brands like Spreewald pickles or the East German care parcel as tokens of a communal utopia as nostalgia-framed identity salves that allow consumers to regain pride as former East German citizens.

With socialism being a multi-billion-dollar business today, sociologists and historians need to adjust their theories on the political significance of socialism markets. The ability of socialist goods to help consumers challenge capitalism’s social and economic conditions must be questioned. While, on the surface level, socialism markets may look like attractive avenues for consumers to take an active stance against status consumption, hyper-individualism and competition, they are ultimately strategies for capitalist societies to transform political dissent into highly emotional consumption adventures, thereby depoliticizing critique and nurturing consensus for the capitalist market system. Re-invoking innocent, emotional, and apolitical tales about the good life in socialism, these brands have a vital function for securing social order in turbulent times by giving citizens a sense of pride, control, and identity as consumers.

Featured image credit: Dresden by maxmann. CC0 via Pixabay

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