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Posted August 3, 2008
The French historian Fernand Braudel's 'Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Century' is an astonishingly bold and hugely successful attempt to push standard political/military history to the side and portray the creation of the modern world largely through its economic underpinnings. Not even the brave title does justice to his ambition, which sweeps, when necessary, all the way from the ancient world through to the 1970's. And wherever he looks, whatever he touches, Braudel brings to bear a superbly readable style, deep insights into human behavior, endless curiosity, and a depth of knowledge even 'magisterial' doesn't describe. He's fascinated by the incessant economic activity of man, down to the simplest, and it's Volume 1, 'The Structures of Everyday Life', that the lay reader will find the most interesting, because it's a portrait in depth of how the human race lived before modern technology-- the housing, the clothes, the food, the drinks, the plagues, crime, fairs and markets, transport, money, taxes, animals domestic and wild, everything, emphasizing the great limitations that bore down everywhere on pre-modern man, but portraying a world that nonetheless hummed with activity. But above all, he wants to show how one kind of human activity, capitalism-- the accumulation and control of men, money and material for later use, for investment-- triumphed. And try to understand why one subset of man, Western, seized capitalism's possibilities more than any other. So it's Volume 2, 'The Wheels of Commerce', an in-depth survey of production and trade and the financial techniques that supported and encouraged them, focusing more sharply on Europe, that in many ways is the heart of the work. Braudel sees large-scale trade, not the mechanized industrialization that came later, as accumulating the wealth and power that finally fueled modern capitalism. Volume 3, 'The Perspective of the World', runs through the cycle of Western capitalist leadership, from early champions like Bruges and Venice all the way to Britain and America, re-examines other civilizations, the 'losers' in a sense, and ends with the coming of modern technology and industrialization. Some brief but profound speculations on capitalism's possible future or end conclude the great work. It's such a tremendous achievement, why not call it perfect? Well, look at the indexes for part of the answer. No Mozart or Milton or Washington or Copernicus. Emphasis economics! Religion? An alien reading these volumes might never guess human beings have spiritual lives. War plays less of a role than it did in actual history, even economic history. Technology gets its due, science doesn't. In the end, too, he's unsatisfactorily coy on how he actually judges capitalism as a system, though his thoughts on slavery, serfdom and economic inequality give enough hints. And the work's so teeming he often runs off into tangents and margins and the thread can be lost. But nobody who truly wishes to understand how our present-day world came into being and where it may go can dare pass up this monument.
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