In his third volume of the Civilization and Capitalism 15-18th Century trilogy, The Perspective of the World, Fernand Braudel examines the organization of capitalism through its largest units: city states and nation states. Defining capitalism as the money that can be accumulated through the time-delays of banking arrangements, and the high prices that can be charged through long-distance trade, he argues that it has "always been visible since the dawn of history, and that it has developed and perpetuated itself down the ages." (620) In this understanding, capitalism has simply grown and grown and grown -- but slowly, like a crocodile.
Chapter one begins with capitalism as viewed through space and time. Braudel advances three spatial rules for the building of a world economy: first, economic activity is dominated by one city; second, the scope and ability of each successive center is not necessarily the same; and finally, there is always a hierarchy of zones within a world economy. These hierarchically organized zones are separated by relatively quiet boundaries, boundaries formed by a difficult-to-traverse geographical features. Following chapters focus on the historical progress of city-centers and the trade routes that formed around each. With regard to temporal divides, Braudel suggests that price cycles of various lengths (named for various economic researchers) -- the Kitchin 3-4 years; the Juglar 6-8 years; the Labrousse 10-12 years; the Kuznets 20 years; the Kondratieff 50 years or more, and longest of all, the secular trend -- are more significant than previously thought, helping to make sense of fluctuations that would otherwise be inexplicable. Of the secular trend, he says;
Barely visible in daily life, but plodding inexorably on, always in the same direction, the trend is a cumulative process, building on its own achievements: almost as if it were determined gradually to raise the mass of prices and economic activities until some turning point when, with equal obstinacy, it begins working to bring them down again, slowly and imperceptibly but over a long period. Year by year it is hardly discernible, but measured century by century, it is something of importance. (77)He marks the four European cycles as 1250 -[peak 1350]-1507/10; 1507/10- [peak 1650]-1733/43; 1733/43--1896; 1896 -  - ? Braudel, writing during the 1970s (this book was published in France in 1979), had not got the dizzying economics of the 1980's and 1990's to confuse matters, and other historians might see these trends as being too general to be analytically useful; however, Braudel's point is that these trends are something like ocean currents -- they're there, an explanatory undertow dangerous to entirely ignore.
Summing up the argument of his first two volumes, Braudel says
At ground level and sea level, so to speak, the networks of local and regional markets were built up century after century. It was the destiny of this local economy, with its self-contained routes, to be from time to time absorbed and made part of a 'rational' order in the interest of a dominant city or zone, for perhaps one or two centuries, until another organizing 'center' emerged; as if the centralization and concentration of wealth and resources necessarily favoured certain chosen sites of accumulation. (36)Almost as an aside, Braudel lists the weapons of domination: "shipping, trade, industry, credit, and political power or violence." (35) These, naturally, go with the accumulation of capital in the methods that he believes are fundamental to its definition.
Having offered a set of time and space units of measure for economies, Braudel turns to the development of Europe. There were northern and southern halves -- the Low Countries and Italy -- Bruges and Genoa -- and until about 1600, the southern half was more concerned with trade than manufacture, and consequently the stronger. Braudel compares the primitive northern regional economies with the trading arrangements facilitated by Southerners. "Between the bustling West and the rather less bustling East, the Hanseatic societies clung to an elementary kind of capitalism. Their economy hesitated between barter and money; it made little call on credit: silver coin was for a long time the only currency allowed. Such traditions were signs of inferiority, even the context of capitalism of the time." (105-06)
By contrast to the Hanseatic league, the six Champagne and Brie fairs (each two months long) linking the North and South throve on the exchange of regional cloth and on the debt settlements carried out mostly Italian money-changers. Then the powerhouse Genoa was supplanted by Venice (1400s), and in following century Venice by Antwerp (1500s). In the case of Venice to Antwerp, Braudel notes that Portugal, engaging in forays into the Indian Ocean exploration, cut Venice out of the pepper trade. But it is difficult, perhaps, to specify just why merchants feel a better opportunity for trade has migrated elsewhere. Here is Braudel on the switch: "Antwerp did not set off the capture the world -- on the contrary, a world thrown off balance by the great discoveries, and tilting toward the Atlantic, clung to Antwerp, faute de mieux. The city did not struggle to reach the visible pinnacle of the world, but woke up one morning to find itself there." (145) Antwerp, in her turn, gave back the supremacy to briefly to Genoa, whose hemmed-in geographical space required, according to Braudel, very astute organizational skills, a balancing act of endless opportunism, and suggested the prudence of a keeping a low profile. However, by means of several spectacular Genoese-backed financial crashes, Antwerp in the 1650s was once more the center of the European economy, an economy that encompassed not just northern and southern Europe, but traded with the world.
Before dealing with the rest of the world, Braudel pauses to discuss how national markets are formed. He attributes national markets to a faster pace in circulation, to an increase in agricultural and non-agricultural production, and to an increase in overall demand. The smallest platform for growth is the province, and he considers the effect of customs duties, boundaries, and roads. His tools for comparing nations-- in this case, England and France -- are comparative quantification of consumption, production and income. He concludes that nation states cannot be accurately compared using national income or GNP, but rather should be compared through per-capita income and the tax structure. Braudel's point is that it can be difficult to create meaningful comparisons with bad data or the wrong tools.
His overview of other world economies touches briefly on the Americas, Africa, Russia, Turkey, the Far East, and India. He tells some familiar stories: the drain of silver from the Americas to the East, the decline of Islam, the endemic and highly organized evil of the slave trade in Africa, the balance of trade between colonies and center. What strikes the reader unfamiliar with these empires is the network of trade, in both luxury and necessity, that went great distances overland. The Russian territories, for example, were "open for trade" in the winter, when sledges were practicable. Another striking feature -- in contrast to the far-flung networks -- is the miscellaneous collections of societies and economies that a single region could contain (428). To put the point another way, the levels of economic organization perhaps varied more greatly in other regions of the world than the region contained within Europe. These various levels of "dis"-organization do, in part, answer the question of why so few a number of Europeans could effectively re-organize huge territories in the Americas and India through a combination of trade and conquest.
Considering, finally the Industrial Revolution, Braudel sees it not as a discontinuous catastropic change, but rather as a geographic gradualism. Capitalism has always contained mercantile, industrial, finance (621) Reviewing world economies, Braudel sees industrial capitalism as following, and partially dependent upon, the accumulation of capital through trade. He notes that cultural centers are not necessarily the same as economic centers, but economic centers are generally synonymous with technological centers. In sum, for the centuries in his consideration, at least, capitalism is essentially independent of technology.
Somewhat unnervingly, Braudel concludes mystically: "Is it really possible to believe that human history obeys all-commanding rhythms which ordinary logic cannot explain? I am inclined to answer yes, even though the phenomenon is as puzzling as the climactic cycles, whose existence we are forced to admit, since the evidence stares us in the face, although the experts can still only suggest hypotheses about their origin." (618) At the time of this writing, I would suggest, that the most puzzling factors remained economic, and it was these slow secular sea currents that siren-like, sang the most dazzling song to Braudel.
NOTE: p.316-317 a great map on distance