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Re-examining Braudel’s thesis on state power and early modern capitalism

The relation between the state and capitalism is today an important theme of research in the social sciences. Are Fernand Braudel’s ideas on the subject still relevant? We believe so, and this paper will emphasize why it is interesting and fruitful to re-examine them.

Braudel’s thesis on early modern capitalism – mostly developed in his masterpiece Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècles (1979) – have received much praise, but also much criticism. Braudel has been accused, in particular, to present a narrow vision of social hierarchies, to insufficiently contextualize non-European worlds, to excessively emphasize the importance of long-distance trade over other sectors of the economy, and to take too little account of temporal change. One element of his theory that has been relatively less discussed is, paradoxically, his core argument, namely that early modern capitalism functioned differently than the rest of the economy. According to Braudel, capitalism was characterized by highly speculative, complex, opaque, and generally monopolistic operations, as opposed to the broad market economy where regular, transparent, truly competitive transactions dominated.

Without this distinction in mind, it is difficult to understand Braudel’s claim that early modern capitalism developed a symbiotic relationship with the state. Indeed, whether through wealth, special financial techniques, or privileged connections, the high-flying actors involved in capitalistic operations could often use political power to their advantage, as a lever that would allow them to achieve exceptional profits. Expanding on this idea, Braudel writes that ‘capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it is the state’.

This paper will reassess this thesis, analysing it in the light of new researches and new archival findings. The main conclusion is that Braudel’s ideas still offer an important key to consider the issue of power within the framework of early modern economic history.


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