Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism 

Book Cover

Book Title

Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977


Braudel, Fernand (translated by Patricia M. Ranum)


Braudel submits an assessment of the writing of economic history in this book. By dealing with this specific field, the author reflects on his own method (primarily in relation, but not limited to, his Civilization and Capitalism trilogy). By dealing with the concept of exchange, Braudel observes that “without exchange, there is no society”- giving economic history a centrality to all history. By using the aid of illustrations as well as conceptually grounding itself in relation to laws (such as the law of reciprocity), the book takes a variety of examples and organizes them into valid observations about a global economy.

The book discusses the rise of capitalism as a global and local force, though preceded by a material life that made the advent of market economy and capitalists (examined through merchants who were able to expand outside national boundaries) possible. By examining factors such as the state, social hierarchies, and the feudal systems of Europe and Japan, Braudel shows us how capitalism destroys social hierarchies in order to create new ones to its own benefit. Capitalism is thus a phenomenon that both assimilates and obliterates.
Braudel, in finding the origins of the modern economy, gives it a shape by creating working definitions of what it comprises. By disagreeing with Immanuel Wallerstein’s approach in his work The Modern World-System in assuming that the only world economy was a European one, Braudel instead posits that the globe was already divided into coherent economic zones, even in times of antiquity. The book puts forth that world economies such as China, the India and “Insulinde” block and others had been prominent members of the world economy up to a certain point. The key point is, however, that capitalism is a global phenomenon that is only triumphant when it defines the state.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Giving a broad overview of themes such as material life, the market economy and capitalism, and capitalism and dividing up the world, Braudel is able to structure this book into a concise account with three chapters. The structure of the work is wide, consisting of a time period before 1450 and ending with modernity. The nature of the work, whilst brief (it is 120 pages), makes general observations with a commanding tone; Braudel here writes in the first person. There are astute points made about the emergence of the market economy and its relationship to power over time.

The book also focuses on the historical method and how one can distinguish between the market economy and capitalism, whilst encouraging more work by young historians, stating that history is a field that is constantly re-inventing itself- questioning this book’s ability and adequacy to explain the origins of the modern global economy.

By examining cities, diseases, trade, currency and methods of transport, Braudel’s work is accessible to the reader by providing a broad picture of social life that underpins his economic analysis. For instance, the knowledge of steam power to Ptolemaic Egypt is relevant insofar as it justifies how the industrial revolution could have occurred before its final realization, but did not. The examples thus give a contextual understanding of how economic development occurred over time and also imply continuity with, rather than a break from, the past. In this sense, the scope of the work is one that invites reflection, but also posits a method of situating global trends within historical continuities.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Braudel’s work is significant in relation to his three volumes on civilization and capitalism, being a concise reflection on the general themes that could be derived from such an extensive study of society over time. By characterizing both pre-industrial and industrial economies, the book asserts that both are subject to trends, more specifically, long-term equilibriums and disequilibriums. The book observes the term capitalism to be ambiguous and “loaded with contemporary, and possibly, anachronistic connotations”.
Braudel explains the emergence of the industrial revolution as an event with roots in the past, and questions the idea of a divergence between past and present; assuming that the past contributes in many ways to the present.

By leading us to question the habit and routine nature of human action, the book puts forth that the ways in which we act are grounded in the beginning of mankind. The work thus consciously submits that there are linkages between disparate societies over time- the resultant outcome is a ubiquitous marketplace that transcends difference.
Displacing the idea that we could attribute economic progress primarily to capitalism, the book instead offers the explanation that the expansion of material life gave a pretext to capitalism.

The book distinguishes between the terms capital and capitalist. The former, it posits, is a real tangible series of financial resources whilst the latter is a person who attempts to preside over such resources being inserted into a production process. Capitalism therefore relies on individuals and capital; the former usually “possessed superior knowledge, intelligence, and culture”. Braudel goes further to argue that capitalism is able to flourish through the concept of change, and is monopolistic in nature. Yet, he argues that capitalism has not changed in itself, thus retaining universal properties which enable it to exploit resources globally.

Whilst acknowledging that his method of splitting up time into three stages is “mutilating” complex realities, Braudel’s work is an exercise in contemplating the emergence of a global economy and the trends that contributed to it, to explain how the past is in many ways inseparable from our understanding of the contemporary.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh