‘Consumerizing Care: The Formation Market-Based Solidarity Systems’
by Markus Giesler
Meeting ID: 683 469 0808
Consumer culture theory (CCT) research widely takes for granted that solidarity gets expressed through consumption decisions. Showing solidarity means to either deliberately buy more or less—a premise that is disputable but conforms with CCT’s consumption focus. For instance, Weinberger and Wallendorf (2012) carve out how consumers, in response to Hurricane Katrina, engage in shared consumption practices to express solidarity within the New Orleans community. Further, Eichert and Luedicke (2022) identify a subgroup of LGBTQ+ consumers that deliberately buy from gay-owned businesses to express in-group solidarity and collective resistance. Finally, Varman and Belk (2009, 687) unravel that Indian consumers boycott Coca-Cola in a nationalist movement grounded in “multiple solidarities based on caste, religion, and regional affiliations.”
This reading of solidarity as consumption is not limited to academic work. CCT research rather reflects the times we live in. Recently, European politicians have urged consumers to lower their energy consumption (i.e., minimizing resource dependency to Russia) out of solidarity with Ukraine (Duffy 2022). On the contrary, buying more from Black-owned businesses is considered an act of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement (https://www.timeout.com/things-to-do/how-to-support-black-lives-matter).
Despite the manifold links of solidarity and consumption in CCT and current public discourses, the concept of solidarity has originally not embraced consumption. It even stands in opposition to consumption and capitalist logic (e.g., Lynch 2022). Solidarity describes the moral obligation “to share resources with others by personal contribution to those in struggle or in need and through taxation and redistribution organised by the state” (Stjernø 2009, 2). This flow of resources is not based on a logic of direct exchange in the market realm but on aspirations of a cohesive and stable social order (e.g., Durkheim 1893). Given this conceptualization that even counterposes the market-driven atomization of society, how, of all things, did consumption become a way to express solidarity?
From the very beginning in sociology, the concept of solidarity has evolved under the influence of and as a response to industrialization, individualization, and globalization. While Tönnies (1887) feared the collapse of pre-industrial community and, thus, the traditional bonds of solidarity, Durkheim (1893) was the first to provide an understanding of solidarity compatible with an increasingly industrialized society. He developed organic solidarity as stemming from interdependency instead of sameness as in traditional, mechanical solidarity. In reaction to the advancing individualization, Komter (2005) further conceived a solidarity arising from voluntariness instead of necessity and mutual dependency. Consumer research reformulated this idea into a solidarity out of consumer choice (Giesler 2006). While these contemporary accounts characterize this solidarity as “thin” and “segmented” (Giesler 2006; Komter 2005), other scholars state that arrangements based upon consumer choice and individual purchasing power replace and repress solidarity (e.g., Bauman 2013; Stjernø 2009; Wilde 2016).
On a political level, the original idea of solidarity enabled the creation of the welfare state. With weaker social structures of families, neighborhoods, and communities due to the industrialization, the tasks of social welfare was transferred to the state (Bayertz 1999). Social redistribution serves to provide support to the “unfortunate members” of society, regardless of birth, merit, or worth (Baldwin 1990). It obtains acceptance as long as enough citizens see themselves at risk to become needy (Baldwin 1990). However, social democracy often constrains individual autonomy by coercing redistribution and anonymizes the act of solidarity (Bayertz 1999; Bernstein 1899). In contrast, neoliberal capitalism has shifted the responsibility to solve societal problems from the welfare state to the individual consumer (Giesler and Veresiu 2014). Thus, market principles reign over social welfare services, such as in the privatization of health care (Harvey 2007; Stjernø 2009).
The evolution of the solidarity concept shows that market logic increasingly represses solidarity. However, solidarity is still widespread, though often in conjunction and in harmony with consumption. In this research, we critically unpack the idea of solidarity in a market-based society. Specifically, we ask (1) how solidarity is shaped by and shaping markets, (2) how ideological contradictions between solidarity and capitalism get resolved, and (3) what mechanisms are involved in the creation of market-based solidarity. Using Foucault’s (1991) sociology of governmentality, we uncover how neoliberal capitalism co-opts solidarity in order to maintain its hegemony (e.g., Harvey 2007, 3). To this end, we introduce the concept of market-based solidarity as expression of care through consumption in contrast to civic-based solidarity through sacrifice.
To study how solidarity has become increasingly market-based, the coronavirus pandemic serves as an ideal context. The novel virus rapidly spread around the world and, to date, led to 6.5 million deaths worldwide (Statista 2022). Most governments established protection measures, including weeklong lockdowns or mask mandates. These social welfare measures especially aimed to protect the most vulnerable citizens (i.e., immuno-compromised and elderly). However, other forms of solidarity that included consumption (e.g., the support of local businesses through consumption) increasingly gained traction. As the coronavirus pandemic includes both forms of solidarity that even compete for attention and legitimation, it represents an ideal context to investigate how consumption became a way to express solidarity.
In what follows, we first describe our theoretical analysis relying on the sociology of governmentality. We put emphasis on Foucault’s thinking that concepts must be considered in light of their historical circumstances and, thus, we argue that the concept of solidarity needs to be reconceptualized for neoliberal times. Second, we perform an empirical analysis in the context of the coronavirus pandemic in Germany. We show how different movements of solidarity caused contradictions between civic and market goals and how these were resolved through the creation of market-based solidarity. Finally, we discuss how our findings contribute to the conversations of solidarity in consumer research (Chatzidakis, Maclaran and Varman 2021; Giesler 2006; Vikas, Varman and Belk 2015; Weinberger and Wallendorf 2012) and consumer responsibilization (Bajde and Rojas-Gaviria 2021; Cherrier and Türe 2022; Coskuner-Balli 2020; Giesler and Veresiu 2014), as well as how they provide guidance to policymakers with regard to social welfare politics.