Friday, October 10, 2008
"The Perspective of the World" Fernand Braudel
The third volume in Braudel’s classic Civilisation and Capitalism, The Perspective of the World, is concerned with the highest of the three levels, the operation within the economy of capitalism itself. Credit.
In many ways this is the most conventional of the three volumes. It begins with a theoretical chapter, defining terms and mapping out a strategy. Then it looks at the development of capitalism in Europe, Asia, India, Africa and the Americas: a chronological economic history of the world, then. The pointillism and synchronic double vision of the first two volumes is replaced by a more traditional historiography in which narrative is balanced by analysis, primary source with secondary source.
The volume begins with an examination of the concept of a world-economy as distinct from the world economy (the translator here is beyond excellent). This is not a concept original to Braudel, but he develops it, takes issue with it, refines and complicates it, adding a historical dimension.
World-economies have certain features which define them: they have boundaries; they are centred on one particular city - a world city- (which centre can shift through time) with an already dominant type of capitalism; they are marked by hierarchies of regional economies, in fact a type of inequality.
In terms of spatial features, they consist of a core: (the world city itself and its immediate surroundings), a middle zone (the economic hinterland of the city) and a periphery (those areas of backwardness which are nonetheless effected by the city, its colonies and new overseas markets.)
In terms of temporal features, world-economies are subject to the interaction of economic cycles of varying length and visibility: short- term price fluctuations linked to harvests and epidemics (conjunctural history), Kitchin cycles, Juglar cycles, Labrousse cycles, Kuznet cycles and Kondatrieff cycles. These are well studied and documented by economic historians. Braudel’s project in this volume of his book is to look for evidence of the operation of these cycles in the pre-modern period, and to promote the recognition of another type of cycle long ignored by economic historians: the secular cycle (la longue duree in economic terms). The secular cycle operates over several centuries, and is so slow and deep that in the period covered by the book, there have only been four peaks: 1350, 1650, 1817 and perhaps 1974.
The book looks at the growth of the European world-economy, showing how it grew from a city-centred economy to a national one; in other words, how the central core expanded from a city and its hinterland, to regional economies and then to the national economy, where the middle zone expanded to the borders of the emergent nation state. The first part of the discussion focuses on how the centre of the city-dominated economy shifted from Bruges, to Venice, Genoa, Antwerp and Amsterdam, a constant fluctuation along a North-South axis. Each shift was occasioned by a crisis in credit, and was little understood by contemporaries on the ground, who merely perceived the difficulties caused by the bankruptcies of interconnected firms. The second part focuses on a fascinating extended case study of France, the biggest nation state in Europe but one that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) her size, was curiously left behind when the centre of the European world-economy shifted to London. Various explanations are offered for this historical phenomenon.
The book then looks at the non-European world-economies: the Americas, Black Africa, Turkey, Russia, India and East Asia, before examining the various causes, sector by sector, of the industrial revolution in England. The volume concludes with Braudel’s analysis of the ‘present’ (late 70’s) in terms of the longue duree and the secular cycle. This section is of course rather dated, and the crisis of capitalism, talk of which seems to have been in the air in his circle, of course came to nothing. Compared to our present problems, they had it easy back then.
When a foreign power has access to the first-hand market at the point of production, that is indeed commercial colonization.
The laws or so-called laws of economics probably last only as long as the desires and realities of the period they reflect or interpret more or less faithfully.
The laws of the market no longer apply to huge firms which can influence demand by their very effective advertising, and which can fix prices arbitrarily.
I admit to being fascinated and horrified by the spectacle of this disintegration [the Black Death and the huge recession of the mid-fourteenth century], this headlong tumble into darkness – the greatest drama ever registered in European history. More catastrophic tragedies have indeed occurred in the course of the world’s long existences – the Mongol invasions of Asia, the wiping out of the greater part of the Amerindian population after the arrival of the white man. But nowhere else did a disaster of such magnitude engender such recovery: that uninterrupted movement which began in the mid-fifteenth century and led eventually to the industrial revolution and the economy of the modern state.