Fernand Braudel: The Shadow Worlds of Capital


It’s always nice to dip back into Fernand Braudel’s maximus history of Capitalism from time to time. Rereading his preface to the first volume again awakens that truth of how scholars simplify and lie, how they disperse history into fictions of history and mono-narratives that fit their own notions. As Braudel recounts his apparent excitement and bewilderment at discovering the anomalies, discrepancies, and downright untruths in most historical and economic accounts of the rise of capitalism: he discovers that it was never some monolithic enterprise, it was not even just the supposed market economy of which most narratives speak, it was a complex multiplicity guided by two forms of shadow economy. One was the barter economies of local markets in various villages, cities, regions, etc. that had nothing to do with the official markets. While there was another more secretive layer above the official market economy, built of intrigue, power, finance, currency wars, trade, familial, national, and even international conflictual relations. This tripartite scheme would become the cornerstone of his three volume history of capitalism in its richness of detail. And it is that richness that catches the power of this approach. This sense that everything was in process and in conflict, a living breathing society battling it out in the day to day efforts to develop a socious out of the material richness of the world.

One of things he discovered is the constraints that force societies to make certain choices and abandon others, how resources limit and dictate the boundaries of a society and what it can and cannot do (i.e., the very real material limits of its economic expansion is bound to the resource limits and population demography). He calls this the boundary of the possible and impossible. Of course like many he will see the 19th Century as the pivot of the world, the moment of harnessing first steam then electricity as the key elements of transitioning from one type economy and material civilization to another based on new constraints and limits. As he shows the double register of material everyday life and the abstract economic had to be brought into relation. The complexity of the task almost overwhelmed him, yet he persisted and brought forth what may seem to many as a journey into the heart of our history in the West.

Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Centuries

1: The Structures of Everyday Life.
2: The Wheels of Commerce
3: The Perspective of the World

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