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Capitalism as an Anti-Market : the legacy of Fernand Braudel

Manuel De Landa:

"Fernand Braudel has recently shown, with a wealth of historical data, that this picture is inherently wrong. Capitalism was, from its beginnings in the Italy of the thirteenth century, always monopolistic and oligopolistic. That is to say, the power of capitalism has always been associated with large enterprises, large that is, relative to the size of the markets where they operate.

Also, it has always been associated with the ability to plan economic strategies and to control market dynamics, and therefore, with a certain degree of centralization and hierarchy. Within the limits of this presentation, I will not be able to review the historical evidence that supports this extremely important hypothesis, but allow me at least to extract some of the consequences that would follow if it turns out to be true.

First of all, if capitalism has always relied on non-competitive practices, if the prices for its commodities have never been objectively set by demand/supply dynamics, but imposed from above by powerful economic decision-makers, then capitalism and the market have always been different entities. To use a term introduced by Braudel, capitalism has always been an "antimarket". This, of course, would seem to go against the very meaning of the word "capitalism", regardless of whether the word is used by Karl Marx or Ronald Reagan. For both nineteenth century radicals and twentieth century conservatives, capitalism is identified with an economy driven by market forces, whether one finds this desirable or not. Today, for example, one speaks of the former Soviet Union's "transition to a market economy", even though what was really supposed to happen was a transition to an antimarket: to large scale enterprises, with several layers of managerial strata, in which prices are set not taken. This conceptual confusion is so entrenched that I believe the only solution is to abandon the term "capitalism" completely, and to begin speaking of markets and antimarkets and their dynamics.

This would have the added advantage that it would allow us to get rid of historical theories framed in terms of stages of progress, and to recognize the fact that antimarkets could have arisen anywhere, not just Europe, the moment the flows of goods through markets reach a certain critical level of intensity, so that organizations bent on manipulating these flows can emerge. Hence, the birth of antimarkets in Europe has absolutely nothing to do with a peculiarly European trait, such as rationality or a religious ethic of thrift. As is well known today, Europe borrowed most of its economic and accounting techniques, those techniques that are supposed to distinguish her as uniquely rational, from Islam.

Many of the technological inventions that allowed her economy to take-off came from China. What needs explaining is not that antimarkets were born in Europe, but that they did not emerge in the economies of China or Islam, even though the volume of trade there was intense enough. Several historians explain this situation by invoking the repressive power of their respective states, which made large scale accumulation of capital impossible.

Finally, and before we take a look at what a synthetic, bottom-up approach to the study of economic dynamics would be like, let me meet a possible objection to these remarks: the idea that "real" capitalism did not emerge till the nineteenth century industrial revolution, and hence that it could not have arisen anywhere else where these specific conditions did not exist. To criticize this position, Fernand Braudel has also shown that the idea that capitalism goes through stages, first commercial, then industrial and finally financial, is not supported by the available historical evidence. Venice in the fourteenth century and Amsterdam in the seventeenth, to cite only two examples, already show the coexistance of the three modes of capital in interaction. Moreover, other historians have recently shown that that specific form of industrial production which we tend to identify as "truly capitalist", that is, assembly-line mass production, was not born in economic organizations, but in military ones, beginning in France in the eighteenth century, and then in the United States in the nineteenth. It was military arsenals and armories that gave birth to these particularly oppressive control techniques of the production process, at least a hundred years before Henry Ford and his Model-T cars.

This largely ignored military component of large scale enterprises is, I believe, another good reason to replace the term "capitalism" with a neologism like "the antimarket", since we can simply build this military component right into our definition of the term."


2. Cui Zhiyuan:

An extract from a chapter in a very interesting book, that shows the 'liberal socialist' ideological background to many Chinese decisions and choices:

"Braudel, anti-market capitalism and real estate in China

Most commentators in the West, from the Right as well as from the Left, believe China is becoming increasingly “capitalist.” But what is the meaning of the word “capitalism?” It is worth citing Fernand Braudel’s struggle with this word:

- I have only used the word capitalism five or six times so far, and even then I could have avoided it. ...Personally, after a long struggle, I gave up trying to get rid of this troublesome intruder. Capitalism . . . has been pursued relentlessly by historians and lexicologists. . . . But it was probably Louis Blanc, in his polemic with Bastiat, who gave it its new meaning when in 1850 he wrote: “What I call ‘capitalism’ [and he used quotation marks] that is to say the appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others.” But the word still occurred only rarely. Proudhon occasionally uses it, correctly: “Land is still the fortress of capitalism”, he writes. . . . And he defines it very well: “Economic and social regime in which capital, the source of income, does not generally belong to those who make it work through their labour.”

Six years later however, in 1867, the word was still unknown to Marx.

Most importantly, Braudel makes a crucial distinction between “market economy” and “capitalism.” According to him, “there are two types of exchange: one is downto-earth, is based on competition, and is almost transparent; the other, a higher form, is sophisticated and domineering. Neither the same mechanisms nor the same agents govern these two types of activity, and the capitalist sphere is located in the higher form.” Braudel considers the market town as the typical case of the first type of exchange, and the monopoly of long-distance trade and financial speculation as the model of the second type (i.e., “capitalism,” which is essentially “anti-market”).

Braudel’s distinction can make sense of the two types of real estate markets in China today. The first type is illustrated by He Gang City, Hei Long Jiang Province; the second type is illustrated by Bai Hai City, Guang Xi Province. In the case of He Gang city, when land speculation is prohibited by local government, the real estate market becomes the engine of local economic growth. In contrast, in Bai Hai City, real estate developers collude with the banks (borrowing money from the banks to speculate in the land market), the result being that common people cannot afford to buy houses due to the very high prices.16 Petty bourgeoisie socialism must embrace the first type of market while rejecting the second."