Civilization and Capitalism

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* Book: Civilization and Capitalism. Fernand Braudel.


"If you want to understand why the modern world is the way it is (or, as some would put it, the difference between "modernity" and "pre-modernity"), then I can't think of a better starting place than Civilization and Capitalism. It should be compulsive reading for anyone at all interested in economics or early modern history." [1]

  1. Vol. 1: The Structures of Everyday Life.
  2. Vol. 2: The Wheels of Commerce
  3. Vol. 3: The Perspective of the World


Danny Yee [2] :

"Civilization and Capitalism is the single most impressive work of history I have read. Braudel's magnum opus is an economic history of the four centuries during which the modern world was shaped. The emphasis is, in Annales style, very much on social and economic history — wars, treaties, kings and popes only feature incidentally. Braudel takes a very broad view of his subject, however: temporally Civilization and Capitalism looks both backwards to earlier civilizations and forwards to the present; geographically it covers the whole world, though the focus is on the "civilised" parts of it, and particularly on Western Europe. At the heart of Braudel's account is a three-level hierarchy: at the base is ordinary economic life, an all-embracing sea of subsistence agriculture, village barter, and production for local consumption; above this is the market, a world of towns and trade, of markets, fairs, currencies, transport systems, bills of exchange, and workshops; and finally there is capitalism, with its monopolies, attempts to control complete trade networks or even entire world-economies, and stress on flexibility above all else. The structure of Civilization and Capitalism roughly reflects this hierarchy.

The Structures of Everyday Life, subtitled "The Limits of the Possible", deals with the everyday constraints of material life; in it Braudel sketches what is almost a social history of the world. He begins with a chapter on demographics, which he sees as fundamental to understanding history. Two chapters are devoted to food: one to basic subsistence, in the form of the three great cereal crops — wheat, rice and maize — that feed most of the world's people; the other to the "luxuries" — such things as table manners, salt, meat and spices. The shifting boundary between luxury and necessity here is also apparent in houses, clothes and fashion, and Braudel suggests it was significant that only Europe had rapidly changing fashions. Two chapters cover energy sources, metallurgy, transportation, and the critical technological innovations — gunpowder, printing, and above all sea navigation — which contributed to Europe's dominance. The final chapter surveys the growth of towns, which Braudel considers both an instrument and a clear marker of change.

The Wheels of Commerce moves on to trade and the market economy. Braudel begins with the material culture of exchange, from shops, markets, and pedlars to fairs and stock exchanges. He then explores the higher levels of commerce: networks of merchants, trade circuits, bills of exchange, supply and demand, trade balances, the relationship between gold and silver currencies, and so forth. Two chapters deal with capitalism. The first explores its scope and its relationship with agriculture and early forms of industry, and in particular why it failed to take hold in these domains. The second considers capitalism on its home ground in finance and international trade, in a world of partnerships and companies, of monopolies and control, with an influence vastly disproportionate to its relative size. A final chapter places economic life in the context of society seen as a "set of sets", connecting it with social hierarchies, the state and the broad dynamic of cultural change.

The Perspective of the World takes a global, world-systemic approach. Braudel begins by arguing for the existence of multiple "world-economies" and describing their geographical and temporal dimensions. He then traces the development of the European world-economy and of the "world cities" which successively ruled it: Venice, Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam and finally London. This is followed by an analysis of the emerging national economies and their relationship with international capitalism, with a detailed comparison of France and England. Braudel then turns to the rest of the world — the Americas, Black Africa, Russia, Islam, the Far East — and its relationship with Europe, before returning for an analysis of the industrial revolution in the light of the previous analysis of capitalism. Here Braudel seems somewhat more tentative about his conclusions than he had been in the earlier volumes.

These summaries do little justice to Braudel's work: its genius lies in his refusal to be constrained by arbitrary disciplinary boundaries and in his ability to combine detail with the broad picture. "