A Little History

Waggish has been reading Proust. I’ve been reading Braudel. More specifically, I’ve been working on his three volumes on capitalism in the 15th to 18th centuries. “The Wheels of Commerce” is how I think of them, although that’s actually just the title of the middle book.

All in all, they’re quite entertaining. Something fascinating turns up every ten pages or so. The daily caloric budget of most peasants was around 2000 calories, overwhelmingly in the form of bread and gruel. A luxurious diet was still half or more cereals. Until the Industrial Revolution well, revolutionized metallurgy, the second-best raw iron in Europe came from India; the best from Sweden. Latin American sugar planters lived far better than their slaves, but badly by European standards; it was the merchant middlemen who made fortunes off of sugar. In ages of spasmodic supply and variable distribution, warehousing was a critical industry. Malacca was in a perfect position to facilitate trade; the equatorial calms hovered over it for long parts of the year, enabling good access both to the trade winds and the monsoons. And consider this rebuke, from an 18th-century brewer to his buying agent:

I have sent you by coach a sample of the last pale ale you sent in. It is so infamously bad … that I will not receive another sack of it into my brewhouse. Should I have occasion ever to write such another letter, I shall entirely alter my plan of buying.

The past is never far away. Credit and finance, innovation and entrepreneurship, distribution and communications networks … there are modern echoes of almost everything Braudel writes about. We are hardly living in the first global economy.

It’s also hard to know what to make of his theses. His idea about superimposed cycles of history, like waves that roll in off some supernatural ocean and raise and lower the fortunes of the entire world at once, just sounds kooky. (It doesn’t help that he speculated, as he finished the trilogy in the 1970s, that the world might be entering a great century-long downturn. It may yet, but history seems less likely to record the oil crises as the moment everything started to go wrong.) Distinguishing “capitalism” from the “market economy” also allows him to make some interesting points, but also comes to seem tautological. In the end, I’m not sure that “capitalism,” as he uses the phrase, is a concept with enough descriptive power to be a useful category of analysis. (This itself seems to be part of his point; his writing can be both quite precise and quite elusive.)

Still, a fun read.