Friday, October 10, 2008

"Civilisation and Capitalism" Fernand Braudel

My purpose throughout has been to see and to let others see, by allowing what I show to speak for itself, all the richness, complexity and heterogeneity of real life.

Braudel’s huge history of economic life consists of three volumes:

The Structures of Everyday Life
The Wheels of Commerce
The Perspective of the World

The work was begun as a summary of the available sources on economic history between the 15th and 18th centuries. However, during the writing of it, Braudel began to discern from the primary sources a story which was different from the accepted version of what was supposed to have happened. Instead of a single layer of economic activity - the market economy studied by economic historians, and which shows up on statistics- Braudel saw three layers interacting with each other. A shadowy sub-layer on a much lower level than that of the market economy, the level of material life, the food, clothes and living conditions of societies. A rarefied higher level, that of the world economy itself, the favoured domain of capitalism, in which a few extremely powerful individuals made financial decisions which effected whole zones of economic activity (the hedge fund managers who have wrecked our current global economy), decisions which were unbeknownst to and little understood by the larger numbers of people who lived through these effects. These outer levels are both the shadow and the nimbus cast by the light of economic history.

Braudel’s especial gift as a writer and as a historian is his ability to sustain two fields of vision at the same time: the short close up and the long view, each illuminating the other. In the three volumes that make up Civilisation and Capitalism these two views, the accumulation of close ups and the long view (la longue duree), are brought into shifting relations, what Braudel calls the past/present dialectic.

This is a magnificent work which I feel my reading of has not really done justice to. Economics is not my area of specialisation, and I also only have an amateur knowledge and understanding of the various Marxist theologies. I am often ignorant of what Braudel is writing against. Compounding these difficulties is learning how to read the book, how to understand the balance between the patterns and the details. In the first volume the details are to the fore, and the patterns which Braudel discerns have to be teased out the text. I think the idea is to let the details wash over one. However, once this style of reading has been grasped, the reader is on to the second volume, which requires a different kind of reading. Here, the patterns are to the fore, and a much more analytical kind of reading is required. In the third volume, after the difficult first chapter, one can sit back and enjoy the historical narrative unfolding. One is constantly asked to switch reading styles. It is not helped by a typically French refusal to signpost the discourse clearly. Some Anglo Saxon clarity in paragraph labelling and signalling would certainly have helped my reading. However, Braudel is a wonderful guide, freely admitting when he has difficulties himself (his bafflement at the Fuggers’ 16th century account books, for instance), sharing the excitement of his discoveries in the primary sources with the reader, and offering witty and humane captions for the many excellent illustrations: Jacques Bertin has amused himself by ingeniously producing this little masterpiece of data-processing.

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