Seductive Fernand Braudel

I live for those moments when I read a book that intrigues me, seduces me and makes me think, question and eventually undergo a paradigm shift. Fernand Braudel’s On Material Civilization and Capitalism is only 117 pages long and contains little or no citations, but is overwhelmingly profound and exciting.

Braudel’s main argument is that capitalism existed since the 15th century and requires certain conditions, especially on a large scale — namely, it’s “conjunctural,” relying upon a nexus of material life and strong market economy. There are two types of exchanges for Braudel. First is the market economy, which is distinct from capitalism in that it involves simple exchanges between producer and consumer. The market economy is characterized by transparency, the lack of a middleman, and awareness of rules by all parties (at most, 3 people) and moderate profits. Perhaps we can place the Tiv economy under this category of exchange (though the Bohannons characterized it as literally a market where exchanges, “outside capitalism” took place). Braudel’s argument is quite different. The second type of exchange is capitalism, and here Braudel posits a broad definition. Essentially, everything that is not market economy falls under capitalism. Capitalism is characterized by middle transactions taking place between producer and consumer, lack of transparency, greater competition, and most importantly, the liberation from regulations and controls. Braudel says that the monopoly of large merchants engaged in capitalism can be seen by the 14th century in Germany, 13th century in Paris and 12th century in Italian cities (56). Hierarchies predated both systems of exchange. On this point, I disagree with Braudel, for he does not discuss the evolution and differences in hierarchies that existed; arguably, capitalism does produce hierarchies, but perhaps new ones. He argues, “in reality, everything rested upon the very broad back of material life; when material life expanded, everything moved ahead and market economy also expanded rapidly….I persist in my belief that the extensiveness of any capitalism is in direct proportion to the underlying economy” (63). Contra Marx, Braudel asserts that it’s the superstructure and everything else (material life, which he defines as habits, patterns, ways of acting and reacting), which drives capitalist expansion.

The distinction between capitalism and market economy constitutes the thrust of his analysis of the Industrial Revolution. Why did it occur when and where it occurred, “without bottlenecks”? Braudel’s broad storytelling strokes sit in sharp contrast to Eric Wolf’s finely-textured approach to locating the rise of capitalism with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. Though both take a global approach to examining political economy, Wolf’s Europe and the People without History is simply a masterpiece in balancing global and local lenses, international and domestic details, and interconnections between multiple groups through trade and various modes of production.

Braudel observes that under or un-development had been the norm. “Ptolemaic Egypt knew about steam power but used it only for amusement….China appears to have discovered smelting with coke during the fourteenth century, but this potential revolution was not followed up.” What gave rise to the English Industrial Revolution? He provides a few answers — mercantilist and nationalist policies that protected its interests, which France failed to do, the English countryside did not have manpower, yet labor resided in the city, domestic market developed despite rising prices. Most significantly, Braudel brilliantly points out, industrial capitalism was possible because of the “vitality” of the market economy. That is, it was these series of exchanges in the market economy that allowed capitalism to grow and take shape. He readily admits that capitalism and the Industrial Revolution was also fueled by imperialist exploitation of Britain’s colonies in the “third world,” but that the domestic market economy was the more salient factor. Braudel argues against a “whole” system of capitalism and maintains that material life, market economy and capitalist economy are simultaneously at work. Since the 12th century, capitalism existed, albeit it had the “ability to move from one trick to another.”

What are the implications of using such a broad definition of “capitalism” and of “material life”? At what point does the market economy become capitalism? Is it a matter of the degree to which the state determines certain regulations that should foster competition rather than promote monopolies, which Braudel suggests? How can “material life” truly be separated from either “market economy” or “capitalism,” for in the case of Sidney Mintz’s captivating look at the history of sugar, habits, taste, and consumption, all of which were part of material life, and were conditioned by the market economy as well as forms of capitalism. In what ways is his broad definition of “material life” overly deterministic and how is it different from the market economy and capitalism? Where are the boundaries and are they even theoretically and practically important? For Marx, the entire human existence has become “habit,” such that the development of class consciousness and organized and a substantial working class with strong leadership are necessary to change the capitalist mode of production. I shared this moment of discovery with my intellectual partner, David Welker, who pointed to state regulations as the distinguishing element in Braudel’s capitalism, thus leaving transactions in “rogue” states, the informal economy, even types of corporate outsourcing outside the realm.


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