Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Review: Civilization and Capitalism Vol. 1 Part 2

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

This is the second part of this review, a day later than promised. This volume continues in much the same way it started, a basic description of everyday life and the material background that it took place in. Braudel covers topics such as power sources, transportation, money, and towns and cities in the rest of the volume.

From this discussion, there are a few major points that arise. The first is a discussion of why technology could be slow to spread. This idea shows up in a few places throughout the volume, one place could be significantly more advanced in a few areas than other places but these ideas did not necessarily spread or continue to be developed. For example, he discusses Chinese metallurgy and in particular stee,l which was centuries ahead of European developments, Chinese techniques from the 13th century are not match by Europe until the 1780s. Examples of other technologies are given to show the uneven nature of development across the world, technology simply didn't spread as easily as it does today. He discusses several reasons for why there is this difference, from the fixed iteneraries that prevented most societies from exploring off known routes to resistance of craftspeople to specialize and protests in favor of old ways to it simply being cheaper to keep doing things the old way rather than take the risk and expense of trying something new. In many cases new knowledge is discovered but there is simply no desire, or even a concept really, that this new knowledge should be applied in a practical fashion. This changed to some extent, though Braudel makes no specific claims about there being a primary shift, and also claims that to some extent a resistance to innovation is still with us, only when things go wrong is there incentive enough to truly break with old ways and embrace innovation (he gives the example of oil dependency specifically).

The last two chapters deal with money and cities. He discusses different types of money, distinguishing between primitive currencies such as the use of salt or other items from more advanced monies that eventually gave rise to various kinds of credit and the notion of money of account vs the actual coinage. In addition, he discusses how more primitive systems, such as barter, continue to exist outside the money economy. The importance of credit and other monetary issues look like they will be taken up in greater detail in the next two volumes so I'll skip saying more now, though there are several interesting details in this volume.

The final chapter of the book is on towns and cities and introduces some more theoretical concepts than the earlier chapters. In particular, Braudel suggests that cities play a primary role in the development of capitalism and the modern state in the west that did not happen elsewhere in the world. The relative autonomy of towns let them develop their own economic policy that would lead to a sort of pre-capitalist mindset that would provide the basis for the evolution of modern capitalism. Of course, this was eventually followed by the subjugation of towns as the modern state developed but the state would take over much of the thinking of the towns rather than suppressing it. Inheriting both these attitudes as well as the development of the giant capital that went along with a centralized state combined to give rise to national markets that were necessary to fuel the massive concentration of wealth in the capital cities of all powerful states. These developments did not happen in places like China, where while the capital was large it had little independent life and was dependent on the ruler. Both the tradition of the autonomy of the town and the centralized state were essential ingredients for the later development of capitalism. This of course is still presented as background to Braudel's later model, it is presented as an essential ingredient but not as independently causal of the shift which is the product of more factors. Of course this is much simplified, Braudel works through an accumulation of small details to make his arguments rather than grand, sweeping generalizations of theory so it is hard to do him justice in a short space. This volume in particular seems to be more a matter of setting the stage for later volumes than it is a full fledged theory of the development and working of capitalism, it describes the material conditions it operates in and how the people living in that earlier world participated in the economy of their time.

For next week, I've gotten a good start on volume 2 so will be going ahead with that rather than Kirk's The Conservative Mind.

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