The Book of Time and Money

November 29, 2009 § Leave a comment


The Wheels of Commerce – Civilization & Capitalism 15th – 18 Century Volume 2 (Braudel, Fernand)

Founded in 1929, the French historical journal Annales d’histoire economique et sociale brought revolutionary change to the way history was written. The group of French historians who rallied behind its flag called themselves ‘the Annales School’. Their main credo was Total History – an emphasis on socio-economics (as opposed to diplomatic, military or political history), how it evolved over long periods of time (as opposed to distinct events like battles or coronations), and a deliberate attempt to include all strata of society in the analysis, rather than the fortunes of a few prominent men and women.

Fernand Braudel, who edited the journal from 1956 to 1968, is possibly the best-known exponent of the style, and The Wheels of Commerce is the second part of his epic trilogy on the origins of capitalism. While the first part had focused on “everyday life” in the period under consideration (the 15th to 18th centuries) – what people ate, drank, wore, used and lived in across the world, the second instalment is at a higher plane of analysis, the instruments of commercial exchange – village fairs and markets, the advent of shops, the story of itinerant peddlars and journeymen, money changers and financiers, the first few joint stock corporations and finally, an account of long-distance trade across continents. It is the last named, Braudel says, that provided the first glimmers of capitalism, allowing as it did for calculated risk-taking, the valuation of time, and the concentration of capital by reinvestment of extraordinary profits. The third volume promises to be at a still higher plane of analysis – a history of the world as a market economy.

Braudel’s tale takes us from Venice and Genoa to Amsterdam, London, Paris and Geneva, and further afield to Armenia, Jeddah, Surat, Malacca, Macau, the Philippines and Acapulco, as he traces the path of centuries of trade and capital flow. His research consists of sifting through tax receipts, property registrations, statutes, records of lawsuits, wills and testaments, personal letters and business correspondence, scribbled profit calculations, balance sheets and travelogues of ordinary people. The technique, while typical of the Annales school, wasn’t invented by them. I was reminded of Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, regaling his readers with a table listing the price of wheat each year between 1202 and 1733, and a seventy-page digression concerning the variations in the value of silver in the same time-frame. These were necessary for his demolition of the prevalent mercantilist love of hoarding precious metal; Braudel’s case is constructed in similar painstaking fashion.

It is only at the very end that he allows himself the luxury of addressing the big theoretical questions : was Marx right in suggesting that capitalism was the logical successor of feudal society? Was capitalism a secular trend, or the preserve of a privileged minority that effectively “ran the world”? Why was social change synchronized across Europe? Did the state facilitate or hinder the growth of capitalism? Did capitalism originate in Western Europe, and if so, why? Did double-entry accounting have any role to play in the development of capitalism? Does Max Weber‘s theory linking capitalism to the Protestant ethic hold water? Does capitalism equal rational behavior? Is there a difference between a market economy and capitalism? Is Capitalism a culmination, a final stage of progress?  The discussion of each of these questions is animated and satisfactory, except, perhaps naturally, for the last one.

The problem with Annales history, of course, is that it is very, VERY, dry reading. Classical history may gloss over inconvenient details that don’t fit into the grand narrative; it may be elitist and even downright dishonest in its quest for the heroic and the poetic – but at the end of the day, it can be gripping, inspirational, and attention-grabbing in a way that socio-economic history can never be. This, of course, is a tragedy. Modern attention spans being what they are, a love for historical truth will soon be consigned to the unfashionable outposts of academia, where shabby professors and awkward students huddle together in ill-funded departments, poring conspiratorially over arcane texts like so many Kabbalists, while pop history plays loudly, incessantly and inaccurately, but to full houses, at theaters close to you.

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