Review: Braudel’s Perspective of the World

This review originally appeared in a now long defunct livejournal sometime around 2007.

The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism 15Th-18th Century, Vol. 3

Fernand Braudel

The final volume of this magnum opus tracing in minute, painful, detail the creation of capitalism in the west, and the precursors and repercussions of that creation in the rest of the world. For my reviews of the other two volumes, check here and here.

My tolerance for the detailed economic historiography that makes up a lot of this book is pretty low. The breadth of Braudel’s scholarship is still deeply impressive, but as I got to the last hundred pages, I found myself wanting to skip more and more of the detailed recounting of other authors scholarship.

The main take away from Volume Three is something that most people who are interested in the industrial revolution probably already agree on – this wasn’t a revolution in the modern Russian revolution sense. It was a change in the means of organizing society that few noticed while it was happening, and few even tried to understand until much later.* This of course leads to one of the questions that lefties are always arguing over – if one of the greatest reengineerings of society happened without anyone really knowing it was happening, then why on earth does anyone think they can come up with the next great plan by a decision by a central committee? Braudel doesn’t answer this, but all the evidence he gives would point to the conclusion that planned revolutions are a pipe dream.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

* Even Adam Smith, who came a little late to the party, didn’t really grasp what was going on.


Review: Braudel’s The Structure of Everyday Life

Ed note: this review was written for a now defunct livejournal sometime in 2007.

Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century)

Volume I
Fernand Braudel
The Phoenix Press Reissue (563 pages)

The first volume of Braudel’s massive work on the construction of capitalism in the 15th to 18th century sets the stage for all that is to come. It is an exhaustive survey of the social and economics conditions in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world at the beginning of the 15th century.

The amount of primary research that went into this is mind boggling. Everything you ever wanted to know about how much livestock the average farmer in Batvia had to the trends in fashion in the courts of Europe is covered here in great detail.

Braudel is all over the place in these books, chasing every detail and argument to their end, and it can be difficult to grasp the important threads running through the work. In the first volume this isn’t as much of an issue as it becomes in volumes two and three. Braudel is still all over the place, but since he is really only setting the stage, it isn’t as important to try and pick up his overall theory. Volume Two is where he really lays out his argument for the separation of capitalism and the market and why certain places in Europe became economic power houses and others didn’t.*

As in volume two, Braudel is at his best when he’s discussing Europe, and is out of his depth when he deals with the rest of the world. There is a trove of good information in this first volume however, and I would recommend it to the academics out there if only because at some point you may need to be able to speak on the Dutch economy in 1500 or the clothes worn in England by the aristocracy in 1600 and this is the place to get all that good info.

* This is also an idea that he returns to in extreme detail in volume three, which I am about a quarter done with and find…kind of ehh, actually.

Review: Bruadel’s The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization & Capitalism 15th – 18th Century Volume 2

Ed note: this review was written in 2007, while I was in my first year of law school, for a now long defunct livejournal account I had.

The Wheels of Commerce (Civilization and Capitalism: 15Th-18th Century -Volume 2)

Fernand Braudel

The Phonix Press Reissue, 601 pages

(Originally published in France as Les Jeux de l’Exchange, 1979)

After a somewhat tedious first volume, where Braudel sets the stage for life and commerce in the period under discussion, Volume two of Civilization and Capitalism really gets the ball rolling. Or as much as anything ever gets rolling in a Braudel book.

The economics of everyday life can be fascinating stuff, but it is not easy going. The language is straight forward, but Braudel wanders around his subject, giving us mountains of specifics and following various side currents to their ends. The basic point of the volume is to outline, first the difference between the market and capitalism, and then to trace the creation of capitalism in the markets centers of Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Unlike many historian of this period, Braudel is more concerned with the world of finance than the world of production, which I find fascinating and very useful for thinking about the role of finance in the economy today. If you care to know how the financiers of Amsterdam dealt with getting a ship in the ocean and bound for America or India, this is the place to look.

While Braudel is not an economic determinist, economics is at the center of this book. Unlike many other economic historians, Braudel does take the time to deal with how culture (there a section on fashion in the first volume!) religion and other factors play into the shaping of an economic and social system. This makes for a deeply convincing argument when he demolishes Weber’s idea of the protestant work ethic, but is less informed or convincing (and sometimes borderline racist) when he is dealing with non-western cultures.

I appreciate that Braudel didn’t assume that by “civilization and capitalism” one can only mean Western Europe, but his sections on the rest of the world I found lacking. They did not have the erudition he exhibits when taking about Western Europe.

The Book fascinating, but I think Braudel could have done with some editing. This book is not going to lay out point by point the creation of capitalism for you. You’ll need to discover the steps through the examples Braudel gives. It’s a riveting if you’re an econ and history nerd but complicated and meandering work that could have used a co-author (or a better team of research assistants) to handle the non western areas he covers and an editor to tease out the string of the creation of capitalism that subtly floats through this work.

Recommended for the Enthusiast.

Review: Marx’s Capital Volume I

Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics)
Karl Marx

This is another one of those reviews that feels a bit silly. If you’re interested in a life of a mind, you should read Capital. It’s one of the top ten most important books in history, and I am profoundly unqualified to review or critique it. However, this is America, and it is my god given right to post book reviews on my blog, so fuck you.
One of the great misconceptions about Capital is that it is dry and difficult. Many people seem to think that reading it would be a chore. Not true. Admittedly, I was lucky enough to read it with David Harvey, a pretty engaging dude in his own right, but I think even if you were to read it on your own or in a study group, you’d find it funny, engaging, and not all that hard. It assumes perhaps a small amount of understanding of classical political economy (Malthus, Smith, Ricardo, etc) but not much. A copy of the vintage edition and access to Wikipedia is really all you need.
Still, I’d say if you’re going to read it, read it in a group. Some of the ideas need to be worked out, but four friends of average intelligence can understand this book with a minimal level of effort.

That said, is it worth it for you to take the time to read this monster? I’d say so. While I may think a number of Marx’s ideas as laid out here are just plain wrong,* and the ideas of many of those who followed in his footsteps to be even more misguided, I still think this is one of the most important books in history.

As a friend once wrote about Capital, “this is literature”. It definitely is, with all the complications that come with that classification. This book does not explain the workings of a capitalist economy. It is not a science textbook. It is a brilliant work that is part history, part political theory and part a discussion (and refutation) of classical political economy. Everyone should read it, but no one should take it all at face value.

* I think the labor theory of value doesn’t hold up, and predictions of the inevitable death crisis in capitalism have proven to be, well, wrong. That isn’t to say there isn’t a ton to learn from this book. Marx’s analysis of the growth of the capitalist economy may not always be historically dead on, but it is valid, brilliantly argued, and worth grappling with.


Review: Skidelsky’s John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Savior

John Maynard Keynes: Volume 2: The Economist as Savior, 1920-1937

Robert Skidelsky

It is hard to believe there was a time in my life when I thought reading a three volume biography of JMK was a good idea*. But there is it. On a personal note, I read most of this, and the first volume (reviewed separately) while traveling back and forth from my home in Brooklyn to a political economy class being taught by Bill Tabb at Queens College. That commute was about an hour and a half each way, so it gave me plenty of time for reading.

This volume of Skidelsky’s biography covers the time when Keynes began to become to major world player history remembers This was the depression, obviously, and the build up to WWII. Keynes ideas of deficit spending and huge government projects, were at the time (and for the next forty years)**, credited with bringing the U.S. and the world out of the depression. Keynes writing (especially The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money) and recommendations he made to the leaders of Britain and the U.S. during this period (and the rest of his life) are what got him the title of the man who saved capitalism.

But besides his economic work, Keynes personality is what really interests me. I’ll talk about this more in the review of the first volume, but the point of note in this volume is Keynes marriage (after a young adulthood of almost total homosexual relationships) to the wife he would love for the rest of his life, Lydia Lopokova. Keynes love for Lopokova didn’t end his passion for men, it just complicated his personal life some, making him even more interesting to a gossip hound/ amateur economic historian like myself.

This book isn’t easy going, but if you’re a student of economic history, it’s worth your time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

* Note that while I thought it was a good idea, I only ended up finishing the first two volumes. Maybe I’ll get obsessive again, and polish off the series, but this seems unlikely.

** There is now a ton of dispute about what exactly ended the depression, and whether or not big government project, paid for with debt, are actually a good idea or not.