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The Long March

Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. Volume 3: The Perspective of the World

by Fernand Braudel, translated by Siân Reynolds
Harper and Row, 699 pp., $35.00

The Perspective of the World is the concluding volume of Fernand Braudel’s huge essay on the economic and social history of the world between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution. Completed five years ago, it has now been faultlessly translated by Siân Reynolds, whose English rendering of Braudel’s often idiosyncratic prose is a wonderful achievement.

It is appropriate that the work itself should be in the form of a trilogy, for tripartite thinking has always been integral to Braudel’s historical philosophy and indeed to that of the Annales school of French historians, of which he is the long-reigning doyen. The subtitle of the journal Annales—économies, sociétés, civilisations—proclaims a ready disposition to divide everything up into three. So does Braudel’s earlier masterpiece, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, which is split into three parts: “the environment,” “general trends,” and “events.”

Braudel is also famous for having declared that historical time falls into three categories: the long-term (longue durée), the medium-term (conjoncture), and the short-term (événement). His tripartite categorizations are an obvious improvement upon the binary models used by so many historians and sociologists, who are content to divide the past into simple polarities: “preindustrial” and “industrial”; “traditional” and “modern”; “feudal” and “capitalist.” But there is a rigidity about all such divisions, whether polar or tripartite, if they cease to be used as mere expository devices and are presented as possessing some objective reality.

In Civilization and Capitalism Braudel outlines yet another tripartite model, which he compares to the structure of a house. The ground floor is occupied by “material life,” of which the basic components are food, housing, clothes, tools, and money. They formed the subject matter of his first volume, The Structures of Everyday Life.1 The upper stories contain “economic life,” that is, markets, shops, peddlers, fairs, and other means of exchange. Their history was treated in volume two, The Wheels of Commerce. 2 Finally, on what Braudel, as his architectural metaphor grows vaguer, calls “the highest level of all,” there is “capitalism.” This topic was also discussed in the second volume, but it now reemerges as a leading theme in volume three, The Perspective of the World, which is a chronological survey of the economic history of the world between the fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Braudel’s definition of “capitalism” is never wholly explicit, but it is clearly not a Marxist one. He does not look for a capitalist mode of production or analyze the social relationship between the seller of labor and the owner of capital. Rather, his preoccupation is with the conditions of exchange.3 He sees capitalism as a distinctive kind of exchange relationship, quite different from that which prevails in the normal market economy. For whereas the ordinary market operates on a basis of free competition, capitalism rests on the accumulation of power by multinational institutions and the resulting inequality between the bargainers. For Braudel, the central figures in the rise of capitalism are not industrialists, but international bankers and traders. By offering credit, these essentially parasitic speculators bring people, regions, and even whole states into a condition of virtual dependence; and, by exploiting their monopoly of supply and of commercial information, they evade the laws of the market. They profit by unequal competition and continually seek to extend the area of their control.

So, whereas for Marx monopoly was only a late phase of capitalism, it is for Braudel the very essence of the phenomenon; and he finds it present in Europe at least as early as the thirteenth century. Capitalism originated with urban merchants. It was slow to penetrate either agriculture or industry and not until the Industrial Revolution did it gain control of production. In the meantime it was to be found in those parts of the economy where the highest profits were to be made, notably marketing, distribution, and long-distance trade.

Braudel sees the economic history of early modern Europe as the story of the successive primacy of individual trading cities whose accumulation of capital enabled them to dominate the world economy. They did this less by creating new trading networks than by linking old ones together. By securing a few strategic bases on the map of world trade and by providing ready credit for their victims, they were able to play off different trading regions against each other and to make large profits for themselves. Thus by the end of the fourteenth century it was Venice that controlled the commerce between Europe and the East. A hundred years later its hegemony had been undermined by the advance of the Turks, the opening of the Atlantic, and the discovery of the Cape route to India. In Venice’s place, Antwerp emerged as the center of the international economy, basing its supremacy on the import of pepper from the East and of silver from the New World. By the later sixteenth century, however, the source of silver and bills of exchange had shifted to Genoa; and, until they were brought down by the bankruptcy of the Spanish crown in 1627, it was the Genoese who were the bankers of the world. Then followed the predominance of Amsterdam. The Amsterdamers took control of the East Indies, penetrated the economies of Western Europe, and exchanged the goods of the Mediterranean for those of the Baltic.

This domination of the world economy by seafaring cities was possible, Braudel thinks, because capital accumulation could not yet be achieved in the larger and looser-knit territorial states. But once a national market had been created, the larger units inexorably took over. England was the first country to achieve such a national market (Braudel comments wistfully and at length on France’s failure to do so). As a result, Amsterdam gave way in the eighteenth century to London. By the early nineteenth century both India and Latin America were bound hand and foot to British capitalism, just as, five hundred years earlier, the Byzantine Empire had been dominated by the Venetians.

For Braudel, therefore, the instruments of aggression and domination during these centuries were not states and armies, but banks and trading companies. The great Dutch and English Indies companies set out to conquer the world, like the multinationals of our own day. The Europeans settled in Asia within easy reach of points of production and at the intersections of trade routes, “thus saving themselves the trouble of creating infrastructures, and leaving to local communities the tasks of transporting the goods to the ports, organizing and financing production and handling elementary exchange.” The only regions of the world to avoid this domination were those whose rulers excluded European merchants and resisted the seductive lure of bullion and easy credit. Of these, the most notable were Russia, which successfully maintained an autonomous economy; the Ottoman Empire, which, for all its supposed “decline,” continued to ward off European penetration; and China, which after about 1430 cut itself off from the West and deliberately thwarted the growth of capitalism. In India, by contrast, the very success of the Mogul Empire in creating a national market made the European takeover all the easier when the Moguls collapsed.

The triumph of European capitalism and the industrialization of the West ahead of the rest of the world are thus the logical culmination of Braudel’s story. “The history of the world between about 1400 and 1850–1950,” he writes, “is one of an ancient parity collapsing under the weight of a multisecular distortion, whose beginnings go back to the late fifteenth century. Compared with this predominant trend everything else is secondary.”

This analysis is set out in a relaxed, vivid, and colorful way. Braudel is a master of the striking phrase and penetrating aperçu; behind the sometimes oracular prose one can feel the presence of a powerful mind. Every topic is handled with zest, energy, and imagination. The book’s coverage is world-wide, and the range of examples, graphs, and supporting information is enormous. There are more than a hundred excellent illustrations. From the first, which shows turbaned Eastern traders on the Piazzetta in Venice, to the last, which is a Rowlandson engraving of the London Coal Exchange, they offer an enjoyable and genuinely helpful commentary on the text.

In short, no one can read this book without gaining pleasure and intellectual stimulation. Those, for example, who want fresh thoughts on the old question of why England should have been the first nation to industrialize will find both a summary of much recent writing and some new and original insights. Stressing the importance of the early development of an English national market, Braudel remarks that Henry VIII’s failure to reconquer some of France and Mary Tudor’s loss of Calais were not disasters but a great source of subsequent advantage. In the same way, England’s defeat in 1783 in the wars with America, France, and Holland was unimportant, for she emerged the economic victor: “from now on the centre of the world was in her capital.” Braudel stresses another, often forgotten feature of English history: the stability of its money. Stabilized in 1560–1561 by Elizabeth I, the pound sterling retained its intrinsic value until the twentieth century, whereas all its European counterparts fluctuated wildly. “It is as if the English—usually so renowned for their pragmatism—had had a revelation in 1560 of the correct direction to take.”

The discussion of France’s failure to become the center of the world economy is brilliantly illuminating. Braudel contrasts the early appearance of the French state with the late development of a national market and the slowness with which Paris achieved financial dominance over Lyon. He offers a fascinating account of the different economic and cultural zones into which France was divided at various stages of her history; and he shows how the reasons for these divisions can only be understood when the economic history of France is placed in a wider European setting.

On the larger question of why it should have been Europe that came to dominate the world, Braudel has much to say. In his second volume, he attributed the success of European capitalism to social and political circumstances. In China the state inhibited the growth of capitalism by itself controlling all the upper levels of the economy. In the Muslim countries society was also under firm state control: typically, the composition of the upper class changed in every generation and the possibility of accumulation over the generations was ruled out. What was distinctive about Europe was that “it encouraged the survival of dynasties and the continuous process of wealth accumulation without which further development would have been impossible.” Moreover, these European capitalist dynasties had the advantage of being regarded as socially inferior to the aristocracy of birth. This enabled them to escape lightly when the privileged order came under attack. It also encouraged them to accumulate still further in an attempt to reach the sunlight. European social hierarchies thus generated a tension which was economically creative.

  1. 1

    Translated by Siân Reynolds (Harper and Row, 1982). An earlier version entitled Capitalism and Material Life 1400–1800, translated by Miriam Kochan, was reviewed in The New York Review, December 13, 1973.

  2. 2

    Translated by Siân Reynolds (Harper and Row, 1983)

  3. 3

    This point has been remarked upon by Charles Tilly, “The Old New Social History of the New Old Social History,” Review, vii. 3 (1984).

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