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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.