Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism

Frenand Braudel’s “Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism” offers very sharp insight on the birth and the growth of capitalism in the history of material civilization. His theory has been used as a theoretical tool explaining the globalization of modern capitalism. Yet, the value of his book is more than its utility in globalization studies. In this book, he criticizes the European point of view on the history of material civilization and extends his scope to non-European economy.

Especially, he portrays economic history as a spontaneous, slowing evolution with long term equilibriums and disequilibriums, ignoring the history of economics as the successive transitions of big events such as the stages of slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. He thinks that the preindustrial economy is also characterized by the coexistence of inflexibility, inertia and slow motion. www. rpi. edu/~kime2/ehtm/myissues/braudel. htm Braudel notes that the exchanges from Europe across Siberia to China “formed a system of interdependence.

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” Moreover, “at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Russia’s principal foreign market was Turkey” which Braudel also classifies as a separate “world-economy” “reminiscent of Russia. ” Braudel terms the Turkish economy “a fortress,” but also a “source of wealth” and a “crossroads of trade, providing the Turkish Empire with the lifeblood that made it mighty. ” The Turkish economy was not any more isolated from the rest of the world than the Russian economy: A long French report on the Levant trade confirms this impression: “[French] ships carry more goods to Constantinople than to all other ports in the Levant.
The surplus funds are transferred to other ports by means of bills of exchange which the French merchants of Smyrna, Aleppo and [Port] Said provide for the Pashas. ” Braudel then asserts that European trade in the Turkish empire was minimal and “merely passed quickly through [because] money, the sinews of western trade, usually only made fleeting appearances in the Turkish Empire”: as part went to the sultan’s treasury, part oiled the wheels of top-level trade, and “the rest drained away in massive quantities to the Indian Ocean.
” In that case, Braudel should have asked what intermediary role the Turkish economy played between Europe and India. Then too, Braudel notes that caravan routes ran from Gibraltar to India and China “the whole movement-in-space which made up the Ottoman economy,” which “owed its suppleness and vigour to the tireless convoys which converged from every direction. ” Far from having a self-contained “fortress” economy, then, the Ottoman empire drew its lifeblood from being a crossroads between other economies, none of which were independent of each other.
Of course, the Turks tried to maintain their power, derive maximum benefits from their intermediary position, and bar others from sharing in it as best they could. Turkish merchants, not content with their intermediary role at home, also “invaded Venice, Ferrara, Ancona, even Pesaro, Naples and the fairs of the Mezzogiorno” in Italy and “were soon found all over Europe, in Leipzig fairs, using the credit facilities provided by Amsterdam, and even in Russia or indeed Siberia as we have already seen. ” The Turkish empire hardly sounds like a dosed economy
Braudel calls Asia the “greatest of all world-economies,” which “taken as a whole, consisted of three gigantic world-economies,” Islam, India, and China. He even allows that “between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, it is perhaps permissible to talk of a single world-economy embracing all three. ” Toward the end of this period he observes that the center of this single economy became stabilized in the East Indies (beyond the boundaries of these three economies) in a network of maritime traffic comparable to that of the Mediterranean or the Atlantic coasts of Europe.
Of India he writes that for centuries it had been “subject to a money economy, partly through her links with the Mediterranean world. ” Gold and silver were “the indispensable mechanisms which made the whole great machine function, from its peasant base to the summit of society and the business world. ” Braudel suggests that the foundation of Europe’s trade with India was the low wages of the “foreign proletariat” there, which produced the cheap exports exchanged for the inflow of precious metals to India.
As “a historian of the Mediterranean,” Braudel declares himself “astonished,” to find that Red Sea trade in the late eighteenth century was still the same “vital channel” in the outflow of Spanish-American silver to India and beyond as in the sixteenth century. He might have noted how American silver reached this economy not only via the Red Sea and the Levant, but also around the South African cape, and with the Manila galleons. Braudel did observe that the “influx of precious metal was vital to the movements of the most active sector of the Indian, and no doubt Chinese economy.
” According to one historian, the “series of interconnected regional markets dispersed and overlapping around the globe” were really a “world market for silver. ” Perhaps as much Spanish-American silver crossed the Pacific to Asia, where it competed with Japanese silver, as crossed the Atlantic. Like exchanges elsewhere, trade in the Far East was based on goods, precious metals and credit instruments. European merchants could apply to the moneylenders in Japan or in India . . . and to every local source of precious metals afforded them by the Far East trade.
Thus they used Chinese gold . . . silver from Japanese mines . . . Japanese gold coins . . . Japanese copper exports . . . gold produced in Sumatra and Malacca . . . [and] the gold and silver coins which the Levant trade continued to pour into Arabia (especially Mocha), Persia and north-west India. . . . [The Dutch East India Company] even made use of the silver which the Acapulco galleon regularly brought to Manila. (Dennis O. Flynn, 1991). Temporary shortages of silver had an impact on Asia that may have helped bring down China’s Ming dynasty.
Prior to 1630, the inflow of silver from Spanish America and Japan promoted the monetization of the Chinese economy. The abrupt decline in silver production during the world recession after 1630 caused economic turmoil and bankrupted the Ming government, making it an easier prey to the Manchus in 1644. One scholar argues that it was no coincidence that the British monarchy was overthrown in 1640, and the Turkish government nearly fell at about the same time. (Jack A. Goldstone, 1991) Moreover, Braudel also finds a de facto global if not a world economy beyond the monetary sphere.
“Long-term control of the European world-economy evidently called for the capture of its long-distance trade, and therefore of American and Asian products. ” Braudel wrote: Who could fail to be surprised that wheat grown at the Cape, in South Africa, was shipped to Amsterdam? . . . Or that sugar from China, Bengal, sometimes Siam, and, after 1637, Java, was alternately in demand or out of it in Amsterdam, depending on whether the price could compete in Europe with that of sugar from Brazil or the West Indies? When the market in the mother country was closed, sugar from the warehouses in Batavia was offered for sale in Persia, Surat, or Japan.
Nothing better demonstrates how Holland in the Golden Age was already living on a world scale, engaged in a process of constant partition and exploitation of the globe. . . . One world-economy (Asia) . . . [and] another (Europe) . . . were constantly acting on one another, like two unequally laden trays on a scale: it only took an extra weight on one side to throw the whole construction out of balance. Few historians have tried to determine whether and how cycles coincided across the supposed boundaries of these economies, yet such evidence could reveal much about whether they formed a single world economy.
Braudel himself offers only a few indications of simultaneity across the boundaries of his world-economies. He devotes a special section to conjunctures, considers fifty-year cycles, as well as others that are twice as long and more; of these he writes “four successive secular cycles can be identified, as far as Europe is concerned. ” On the one hand Braudel claims that “the world-economy is the greatest possible vibrating surface. . . . It is the world-economy at all events which creates the uniformity of prices over a huge area, as an arterial system distributes blood throughout a living organism.
” Yet, on the other hand, Braudel observes that “the influence of the world-economy centered in Europe must very soon have exceeded even the most ambitious frontiers ever attributed to it. . . . The really curious thing is that the rhythms of the European conjuncture transcend the strict boundaries of their own world-economy. ” Furthermore, “Prices in Muscovy, in so far as they are known, lined up with those of the West in the sixteenth century, probably by the intermediary of American bullion, which here as elsewhere acted as a ‘transmission belt’.
” Similarly, Ottoman prices followed the European pattern for the same reasons. Braudel then demonstrated how such exchange transcended the economic boundaries he describes since the system extends throughout the global economy. Indeed, he observes “knock-on effects” as far away as Macao, even beyond the Manila galleon route. He also remarks that “historians (Wallerstein included) have tended to underestimate this type of exchange. ” Yet, Braudel underestimates this exchange as well.
After reproducing a graph of the yearly fluctuations of Russia’s exports and its wade balance between 1742 and 1785, he only observes “two short lived drops in the [trade balance] surplus, in 1772 and 1782, probably as a result of arms purchases. ” The graph also shows a third big drop in 1762-63. All three coincide with a sharp drop on the graph of Russian exports, whatever may have happened to imports of arms or anything else. These three short periods occurred in Russia in the same years as three world economic recessions, which Braudel discusses at some length in another chapter without making the connection.
In still another chapter, Braudel reproduces a graph of Britain’s trade balance with its North American colonies between 1745 and 1776 that shows sharp declines in British imports, and lesser declines of exports in the same years, 1761-63 and 1772-73. But again Braudel does not look for connections between these recessions. This omission is curious since about the first of these recessions he writes that “with the currency shortage, the crisis spread, leaving a trail of bankruptcies; it reached not only Amsterdam but Berlin, Hamburg, Altona, Bremen, Leipzig, Stockholm and hit hard in London.
” Regarding the next recession Braudel observes catastrophic harvests in all of Europe in 1771-72 and famine conditions in Norway and Germany. According to Braudel “capitalism did not wait for the sixteenth century to make its appearance. We may therefore agree with Marx, who wrote (though he later went back on this) that European capitalism – indeed he even says capitalist production – began in thirteenth-century Italy. . . . I do not share Immanuel Wallerstein’s fascination with the sixteenth century” as the time the world capitalist system emerged in Europe.
Braudel is “inclined to see the European world-economy as having taken shape very early on. ” Indeed he observes “European expansion from the eleventh century” when it was “suddenly covered with towns – more than 3,000 in Germany alone. ” “This age marked Europe’s true Renaissance. ” Furthermore, “the merchant cities of the Middle Ages all strained to make profits and were shaped by the strain. ” Braudel concludes that “contemporary capitalism has invented nothing. . . . By at least the twelfth century . . . everything seems to have been there in embryo . . .
bills of exchange, credit, minted coins, banks, forward selling, public finance, loans, capitalism, colonialism – as well as social disturbances, a sophisticated labour force, class struggles, social oppression, political atrocities. ” Braudel also doubts that capitalism was invented in twelfth- or thirteenth-century Venice. “Genoa seems always to have been, in every age, the capitalist dry par excellence. ” Several other Italian cities also had capitalist activities earlier than Venice. In all of them, “money was constantly being invested and reinvested,” and “ships were capitalist enterprises virtually from the start.
” He further notes that “It is tempting too to give Antwerp the credit for the first steps in industrial capitalism, which was dearly developing here and in other thriving towns of the Low Countries” in the sixteenth century. Moreover, the term “capitalism” also seems to apply at the most macro-economic level, for “if today’s cycles do in fact have some resemblance to those of the past . . . there is certain continuity between ancient regime and modern economies: rules similar to those governing our present experience may have operated in the past. ”
Braudel, however, also cast doubt on the idea that capitalism was invented in Western Europe and then exported to Asia: Everywhere from Egypt to Japan, we shall find genuine capitalists, wholesalers, rentiers of trade, and their thousands of auxiliaries, commission agents, brokers, money-changers, and bankers. As for the techniques, possibilities or guarantees of exchange, any of these groups of merchants would stand comparisons with its western equivalents. Braudel avers that “the rest of the world . . . went through economic experiences resembling those of Europe.
” On the other hand, referring to North and West Africa before the Europeans arrived, he writes that “once more we can observe the profound identity of action between Islam’s imperialism and that of the West. ” Braudel wants to “challenge the traditional image” that describes Asiatic traders as “high-class peddlars. ” Moreover, after Braudel writes of Asians taking turns in a monotonous repetition for a thousand years of shifts in economic dominance, he concludes that: “For all the changes, however, history followed essentially the same course. ” If we asked what changes in or after 1500 as per Wallerstein, the answer would be not much.
Braudel quotes a contemporary French sea captain writing from the Ganges River in India: “The high quality of merchandise made here . . . attracts and always will attract a great number of traders who send vessels to every part of the Indies from the Red Sea to China. Here one can see the assembly of nations of Europe and Asia . . . reach perfect agreement or perfect disunity, depending on the self-interest which alone is their guide. ” No Europeans, including their Portuguese vanguard, added anything of their own, only the money they derived from the conquest of America.
A standard work on Asian trade notes that “the Portuguese colonial regime, then, did not introduce a single new element into the commerce of southern Asia. . . . The Portuguese colonial regime, built upon war, coercion, and violence, did not at any point signify a stage of ‘higher development’ economically for Asian trade. The traditional commercial structure continued to exist. ” Even Wallerstein recognizes “an uncomfortable blurring of the distinctiveness of the patterns of the European medieval and modern world”: Many of these [previous] historical systems had what we might call proto-capitalist elements.
That is, there often was extensive commodity production. There existed producers and traders who sought profit. There was investment of capital. There was wage-labor. There was Weltanschauungen consonant with capitalism. . . . “Proto-capitalism” was so widespread one might consider it to be a constitutive element of all the redistributive/tributary world-empires the world has known. . . . For they did have the money and energy at their disposition, and we have seen in the modern world how powerful these weapons can be.
Wallerstein’s proto-capitalism also negates the uniqueness of his “modern-world-capitalist-system. ” He even acknowledges “All the empirical work of the past 50 years on these other systems has tended to reveal that they had much more extensive commodification than previously suspected. ” (Wallerstein, 586-87, 613, 575) Thus, Europe’s incursion into Asia after 1500 succeeded only after about three centuries, when Ottoman, Moghul, and Qing rule was weakened for other reasons. In the global economy, these and other economies competed with each other until Europe won.
Historians should concede that there was no dramatic, or even gradual, change to a capitalist economy, and certainly none beginning in Europe in the sixteenth century. In conclusion it is useful to cite an Indian historian who writes that “the ceaseless quest of modern historians looking for the ‘origins’ and roots of capitalism is not much better than the alchemist’s search for the philosopher’s stone that transforms base metal into gold. ” It is better for historians to abandon the chimera of a uniquely capitalist mode of production emerging in western Europe.
It is far more accurate and important to recognize that the fall of the East preceded the rise of the West, and even that is only true if we date the rise of the West after 1800. The West and the East were only parts of a single, age-old, world economic system, within which all of these changes took place, then and now. The historian Leopold von Ranke is known for having pleaded for writing history “as it really was,” but he also wrote that there is no history but world history. (Andre Gunder Frank, 1994) Reference: Gunder Frank, 1994. The World Economic System in Asia before European Hegemony; The Historian, Vol.
56 Dennis O. Flynn, 1991. “Comparing the Tokugawa Shogunate with Hapsburg Spain: Two Silver-based Empires in a Global Setting,” in The Political Economy of Merchant Empires: State Power and World Trade, 1350-1750, ed. James D. Tracy (Cambridge), 332-359. Jack A. Goldstone, 1991. Revolutions and Rebellions in the Early Modern World (Berkeley); William S. Atwell, “Some Observations on the ‘Seventeenth Century Crisis’ in China and Japan,” Journal of Asian Studies 45, no. 2 Wallerstein, “The West, Capitalism, and the Modern World-System,” 586-87, 613, 575.

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