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Understanding Globalization   August 22, 2005

There are various pretenders to the throne of explaining globalization, such as Thomas Friedman's recent The World Is Flat, but all such efforts seem shallow and pallid compared to the masterwork of the genre, Fernamd Braudel's trilogy Civilization & Capitalism, 15th - 18th Century:

The Structures of Everyday Life (Volume 1)

The Wheels of Commerce (Volume 2)

The Perspective of the World (Volume 3)

I do not lightly suggest tackling almost 1,800 pages of reading, but there is simply no substitute (short of a master's degree) if you aspire to an incisive understanding of global trade's role in the social, political and economic history of our world. It is not a boring read--anything but, for Braudel's depth of research, breadth of knowledge and his appreciation for the limits of current scholarship are matchless. Where authors like Friedman incautiously grind whatever axe they set out, drawing upon work which supports their thesis, Braudel is ever-cautious about drawing overarching conclusions from the data he has culled from archives' dusty pages.

What Braudel reveals is a world which has been disrupted by far-reaching trade for hundreds of years. Capital has flowed across the great oceans of our globe for far longer than most people realize, destroying local industries in favor of distant ones in the process. It is impossible to summarize such a rich, vast work, but reading even one of these volumes will give you a deep insight into the long history of globalization, and how entire industries and financial centers have been displaced time and again in the Arab Levant, in Asia, and in Europe. You will also come to understand the rise of European economic dominance, and how it cannot be so neatly attributed to guns, steel and germs, as appealing and powerful as Jared Diamond's thesis may be.

Braudel does not labor to create broad-brush explanations so much as present the archival evidence he so assiduously assembled in a fashion which describes the flow of history in exacting, living detail. (The books were written in the late 1970s; Braudel died in 1985 at the age of 83.) For example, he shows that prosperity, since at least the 1400s if not earlier, is found in those cities and regions where prices are highest. It is counter-intuitive at first--since shouldn't money go farther where prices are low?-- but the same is obviously true of our era. The most prosperous nations are those with the highest costs, and the poorest are those where prices are lowest.

At a minimum, this sheds light on the centuries-old exodus from rural to metropolis, and on the nature of prosperity itself. In other words, each element of his work is not a Powerpoint slide but an interconnected web which informs a wide array of subjects, including social and political history, macro-economics, and how life was lived by ordinary merchants, traders and craftspeople.

I recommend these volumes not just for their vast erudition but for the enjoyment gained from his unparalleled mastery of everyday life in distant lands and distant times. Not much has changed, it seems, except the speed of communication between traders and the power of their ships.

Bruadel's writing is a pleasure to read even in translation (the original was in French), for his style is lean and spiced with a droll wit which leavens what might appear at first as dry text. In this his writing reminds me of Gibbons (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) and U.S. Grant's masterly autobiography.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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