Speaking Volumes: Civilisation materielle et capitalisme, 1400 1800

June 30, 1995

Sadie Plant on Fernand Braudel's Civilisation materielle et capitalisme, 1400 1800 .

In 1950, Fernand Braudel embarked on what was to become a long, intense, and convoluted journey. Wandering among the streets, typefaces, doorframes, foodstuffs, intoxicants, metals, banknotes, and trade fairs of several cultures and centuries, he spent 25 years adrift in seas of detailed material and often "despaired of reaching the harbour", as he writes at the end of his voyage.

And yet, by the end of Civilisation materielle et capitalisme, 1400-1800 and almost as if by accident, Braudel and his readers find themselves on a remarkable shore.

From here, much contemporary theory and intellectual chat about markets, capitalism, and globalisation looks woefully inadequate, scandalously ideological, and painfully idealist. By making a clear and powerful distinction between capitalism and markets, Braudel is able to ask some unprecedented questions about the dynamics which feed into the emergence of market economies and the development of capitalism. In short, his interest simply lies in the complex question of how the system works.

In opposition to much of the rhetoric of political economy and its critique, Braudel sees an anarchic dynamism in markets and the material culture from which they emerge. Contra Raymond Williams, there is nothing ordinary about Braudel's conception of culture, which presents itself as a teeming zone overflowing with magnificent detail and fantastic complexity. Nor is there anything linear about his history, which is more akin to the discontinuous multiplicities of leaps, jumps, anticipations and sideways moves which populate much of Michel Foucault's work. He is more materialist than some Marx and most Marxists, and he discusses his work and throws out ideas with a candour rarely encountered in the academic world.

But the currency of Braudel's research is more than a matter of academic interest. There is no shortage of urgent matters to which Braudel's intelligence provides some vital keys. The decline of the nation state, the crisis of modern capitalism and its bourgeois managers, geo-political disorder and the shift from Atlantic to Pacific capital, the increasingly wayward and autonomous flows of people, goods, materials and cash currently in motion across the world . . . to name a few. Braudel's anti-capitalist, anti-socialist, pro-market thesis has its problems, but it is a dramatic advance on the impoverished handwringing rhetoric of those who hanker for the days when centralised planning, communitarian cohesion, national security and happy families had not yet become impossible dreams.

Besides the scrumptuous detail and the fluent prose, it is Braudel's simple interest in how economies work which is the most striking aspect of these books. He may have his opinions about what should be happening or what would be nice, but he also has few illusions about the minor role such judgement plays in the tangled webs of material life. This alone makes him a pleasure to read.

Sadie Plant is a research fellow, University of Warwick.

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