Sunday, April 18, 2010

Book Review: Civilization and Capitalism Vol. 1 Part 1

The Structures of Everyday Life
Civilization and Capitalism
15th - 18th Century
Fernand Braudel

This will be a brief overview, unlike last week's book which I had been reading concurrently with others, I just started this after finishing Wilson's book. I'm not finished yet as it is quite long, though not as long as the last, so I will just briefly touch on the major themes.

Braudel rejects at the outset the division of history into two periods, before and after the industrial revolution. His argument is that development was much more complex than this. There is an evolution but it is not that of a single economy but several. Specifically, he divides this into three economies, only one of these being the market economy that is most frequently written about. The other two economies are what he describes as material civilization, which are the kind of everyday activities where productive work is done but is informal and not governed by market transactions , and the third which he characterizes as the real capitalism which consists of the actions of only the most privileged individuals in the highest social hierarchies where a small number of the very wealthy and powerful can influence events across large parts of the system (so far this part has been addressed only in the introduction, I am probably not characterizing it entirely correctly).

The first volume deals primarily with "material civilization" though the other component economies play some role. He tries to take the entire world into account, in places the age of the book is shown particularly with parts of Asia where his claims seem somewhat different from what I've read in more recent works. Since I've read these areas are being revised due to new information coming in this isn't surprising and doesn't significantly detract from the work as a whole. He discusses in the first chapter issues having to due with population such as estimated totals, migration, attrition due to disease, and similar issues. This is interesting though some of it has likely been overtaken by more recent work.

After this section he moves on to a discussion of food, drink, and other aspects of daily life. A few interesting ideas emerge here. The most interesting is the contrasts in civilizations based on their main food products, rice requires different labor relations and can support more population than other grains for instance. There are also some discussions about why technological change differed in regions and why some regions may have resisted change. Other sections detail the spread of new foodstuffs as well as how such simple things as table manners has altered greatly over time, and links this into discussions about the debate over whether luxury was a driver of civilization and the development of capitalism or if it simply represented a waste of resources by a society with no better outlet for its surplus. Many other interesting details emerge though at this point in the work they have not yet cohered into a narrative that can be easily related. More on this book next week.

After completing Vol.1 I may move on to Russel Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" due to my recent thinking on the subject. Otherwise the next book will be Vol. 2.

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing review. I look forward to next week's.