"Capitalism and the Modern World-System: Rethinking the Non-Debates of the 1970s"

by Giovanni Arrighi (arrighi@jhu.edu)

Fernand Braudel Center 1997.

(Paper presented at the American Sociological Association Meetings, New York, August 16-20, 1996)

Talking at cross purposes is often a major ingredient of so- called debates in the social sciences. The real, though generally undeclared purpose of such non-debates is not so much the shedding of light on their alleged subject-matter as establishing or undermining the legitimacy of a particular research program--that is, what subject-matter is worth investigating and how it should be investigated. Criticisms of empirically false or logically inconsistent statements are advanced not to improve upon the knowledge produced by a research program but to discredit the program itself. This, in turn, produces among the upholders of the program a siege mentality that leads them to reject valid criticisms lest their acceptance be interpreted as a weakness of the program. Worse still, the same fear leads to another kind of non-debate--that is, to the lack of any debate of even the most glaring differences that arise among the upholders of the program.

Useful as these non-debates may be in protecting emergent programs against the risks of premature death, eventually they become counterproductive for the full realization of their potentialities. I feel that world-system analysis has long reached this stage and that it can only benefit from a vigorous discussion of issues that should have been debated long ago but never were. The purpose of this paper is to raise afresh some of these issues by examining briefly two major non-debates that marked the birth of the world-system perspective--the Skocpol- Brenner-Wallerstein and the Braudel-Wallerstein non-debates.

1. The World-System Perspective and Wallerstein's Theory of the Capitalist World-Economy.

As Harriet Friedmann (1996: 321) has pointed out, the emergence of the world-system perspective as research program is inseparable from the influence of Immanuel Wallerstein's The Modern World System, Vol.I (henceforth TMWS) and from the new institutions formed in its wake, most notably the PEWS Section of the ASA, the journal Review, and the Fernand Braudel Center. Thanks to this text and these institutions, the new research program "opened questions later blazed across headlines, and the subject of fast-breeding academic journals. If sociology has kept pace with `globalization' of the world economy, it is to the credit of the institutional and intellectual leadership initiated in 1974 by [Wallerstein's] remarkable study of the sixteenth century" (Friedmann 1996: 319).

The new perspective redefined the relevant spatial and temporal unit of analysis of the more pressing social problems of our times. In Christopher Chase-Dunn's and Peter Grimes' words,

At a time when the mainstream assumption of accepted social, political, and economic science was that the "wealth of nations" reflected mainly on the cultural developments within those nations, [the world-system perspective] recognized that national "development" could only be understood contextually, as the complex outcome of local interactions with an aggressively expanding European- centered "world" economy. Not only did [world-systemists] perceive the global nature of economic networks 20 years before such networks entered popular discourse, but they also saw that many of these networks extend back at least 500 years. Over this time, the peoples of the globe became linked into one integrated unit: the modern "world-system." (1995: 387-8)
In pioneering this radical reorientation of social research, Wallerstein (1974, 1979 [1974]) advanced a theoretical and historical account of the origins, structure, and eventual demise of the modern world-system. Central to this account was the conceptualization of the Eurocentric world-system as a capitalist world-economy. A world-system was defined as a spatio-temporal whole, whose spatial scope is coextensive with a division of labor among its constituent parts and whose temporal scope extends as long as the division of labor continually reproduces the "world" as a social whole. A world-economy was defined as a world-system not encompassed by a single political entity. Historically, it was maintained, world-economies tended towards disintegration or conquest by one group and hence transformation into a world empire--a world-system encompassed by a single political entity. The world-economy that emerged in sixteenth- century Europe, in contrast, displayed no such tendency. Not only did it survive but it became the only world-system--in Wallerstein's own words--"that has ever succeeded in expanding its outer boundaries to encompass the entire world," thereby transforming itself "from being a world to becoming the historical system of the world" (1995:5).

What accounted for this unprecedented and unparalleled expansionary thrust of the European world-economy was its capitalist nature--the fact that it was not just a world-economy but a capitalist world-economy. Wallerstein singled out "production for sale in a market in which the object is to realize the maximum profit" as the essential feature of a capitalist world-economy. "In such a system production is constantly expanded as long as further production is profitable, and men constantly innovate new ways of producing things that will expand the profit margin" (1979: 15).

This alleged transformation of the European world-economy into a capitalist world-economy is both a great strength and a great weakness of Wallerstein's account of the origins and evolution of the modern world-system. It is a great strength because--if it can be convincingly demonstrated--it provides a highly parsimonious and plausible explanation of the uniquely expansionary thrust of the Eurocentric world-system over the last 500 years. But it is also a major weakness because Wallerstein has no convincing explanation of how and why the transformation occurred when and where it did.

This gap soon became the common target of the two most influential critiques of Wallerstein's TMWS, Robert Brenner's and Theda Skocpol's. Twenty years after their publication, these two critiques are still routinely cited in all dismissals not just of Wallerstein's theory(ies) but of the world-system perspective pioneered by that theory. The success of these critiques is no doubt largely due to their reaffirmation of the validity of more traditional Marxist and Weberian research programs in the face of the challenges posed by the emerging world-systems perspective. At least in part, however, their success rests on solid arguments with which world-systemists have yet to come to terms.

2. The Skocpol-Brenner-Wallerstein Non-Debate.

Although the Skocpol and Brenner critiques have different thrusts, both underscore Wallerstein's failure to account plausibly for the capitalist transformation of the European world-economy. From the very start, Skocpol (1977: 1077-8) focuses her critique on the lack of insights offered by Wallerstein on "how and why capitalism emerged, has developed and might one day pass from the scene." In explaining origins and dynamics, she finds Wallerstein awkward and sketchy, in sharp contrast with his forcefulness on the subject of the stability of the capitalist world-system--"once the system is established, everything reinforces everything else."

As to origins,

To explain what he holds to be the demise of feudalism around 1450, Wallerstein... employs, first, an amalgam of historians' arguments about reasons for the crisis of feudalism (1300-1450) and, then, a series of teleological arguments about how the crisis "had to be solved" if "Europe" or "the system" were to survive. The emergence of the capitalist world system is presented as the solution. Thus in this one instance where Wallerstein actually discusses a supposed transition from one mode of production to another, he uses the language of system survival, even though such language is quite incongruous. (Skocpol 1977: 1078)
As to dynamics--"how world capitalism develops once it is established"--Wallerstein's repeated assertions that the system is dynamic are matched by "no theoretical explanation of why developmental breakthroughs occur."
The only definite dynamics of Wallerstein's world capitalist system are market processes: commercial growth, worldwide recessions, and the spread of trade in necessities to new regions of the globe. Apparently the final demise of the system will come after the market has spread to cover the entire globe and transformed all workers into wage laborers. But even the all-important dynamic of global expansion itself depends upon the occurrence of technological innovations--themselves unexplained. (Skocpol 1977, 1078)
After these initial observations, Skocpol develops her critique in two directions: Wallerstein's alleged "reduction of socio-economic structure to determination by world market opportunities and technological production possibilities," and his alleged second "reduction of state structures and policies to determination by dominant class interests" (1977: 1078-9). We shall deal with the first reduction in connection with the Brenner critique. For what concerns the second kind of "reductionism," three observations will suffice.

First, in an incidental but highly significant remark, Skocpol finds "curious" that "a theory that sets out to deemphasize the nation-state"--as Wallerstein's theory does-- should give a decisive role to "a hierarchy of dominating and dominated states" in creating a worldwide pattern of "unequal exchange." This remark betrays a major misunderstanding of Wallerstein's critique of the state-centered approach. Such a critique is not at all incompatible with a recognition of the centrality of states in shaping world-systemic processes. What is deemphasized in Wallerstein's TMWS is the nation-state as unit of analysis. Nation-states as institutions of the modern world-system, in contrast, if anything are overemphasized.

Second, Skocpol's (1977: 1083-5) famous criticism of Wallerstein's category of the "strong state" is partly marred by the same misunderstanding. Wallerstein's characterization of "core" states as "strong" states is largely tautological--states are strong because they are core and they are core because they are strong. Skocpol is perfectly right in pointing out anomalies--most notably, the "weakness" by most standards of the United Provinces--and in invoking standards of state strength independent of core position. However, some of the standards she uses to criticize Wallerstein--e.g. command over large standing armies and bureaucratic organizations--are derived from state- centric analyses that ignore or downplay systemic sources of strength, such as the balance of power, geopolitical circumstances, and control over markets and world money.

Third and last, Skocpol (1977: 1086) is on firm world- systemic grounds when she criticizes Wallerstein for underestimating the importance of politico-military competition among emerging European states as an autonomous resource in the explanation of the origins and dynamics of the modern world- system. As she acknowledges, the use of this resource is perfectly compatible with Wallerstein's conceptualization of an interstate system as an integral component of the capitalist world-economy, and Wallerstein himself does use it occasionally. But he does not attribute to it the centrality it deserves. The validity of this criticism from a world-systems perspective was fully borne out by William McNeill's subsequent pathbreaking analysis of interstate military competition as the primary source of European advances, not just in military and industrial technology, but in commercialization and proletarianization as well (1982).

If Skocpol's critique is largely methodological and concerned primarily with the issue of state power and state formation, Brenner's critique is largely theoretical and concerned primarily with the mechanisms that account for the self-expansion of capital. Brenner (1977) has no disagreement with Wallerstein's definition of capitalism as a system based on production for sale in the market in view of a (maximum) profit and leading to accumulation of capital by way of innovation. As he explained more exhaustively in a subsequent paper, what he questions is that Wallerstein's transformation of the European world-economy into a capitalist world-economy could have occurred in the absence of two conditions: 1) "the separation of the organizers of production and the direct producers (sometimes the same persons) from direct access to, or `possession of' their means of production, i.e. the means to re-produce themselves so as to retain their established class position or to survive;" and 2) "the separation of the direct producers from the means of production" (Brenner 1981: 1, 4-5).

In Brenner's scheme of things, the first condition is necessary in order to activate and sustain the competition that will force the organizers of production to cut costs so as to maximize profits, not just through specialization, but through the ploughing back of profits and innovations. The second condition, in turn, is necessary in order to activate and sustain the competition that will force the direct producers to sell their labor power to the organizers of production and to subject themselves to the discipline imposed on them by the latter (Brenner 1981: 5-6).

As Brenner fully acknowledges, this is nothing but a restatement of Marx's theory of capitalist production as sketched in Vol. I of Capital. Since this theory was itself modelled on the conditions of capitalist production as they developed in England before and after the industrial revolution, it is no surprise that Brenner finds that his and Marx's two conditions of the full development of capitalist production were present in England to a far greater extent than anywhere else. To this he adds the findings of his own research on the different outcomes of the class struggle between landlords and peasants in Eastern and Western Europe, and in different national locales of Western Europe itself, namely in England versus France (Brenner 1976). These findings are then used to establish a connection between the peculiar outcome of the rural class struggle in England and the emergence therein of the above two conditions in almost ideo-typical form.

It would be easy to dismiss Brenner's critique as being based on a highly selective reading of Marx. In this reading there is no room for Marx's more world-systemic theorizations, most notably the thesis that the formation of a Eurocentric world market in the sixteenth century was the single most important condition for the emergence of capitalist production in Western Europe, England included, in the following centuries. Brenner's theory and history of capitalist development does provide at least part of the explanation of why England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries emerged as the main center of capitalist production. But they have even less to contribute than Wallerstein's own theory and history to an explanation of how and why the world-systemic conditions for the development of capitalist production in England and elsewhere were created.

My purpose here, however, is to underscore not the weak but the strong points of Brenner's critique in order to see whether and how they can be met from a world-systems perspective. Two related issues seem to me to deserve special attention: 1) the impossibility of reducing processes of class formation and, more generally, socio-economic structures to position in the core- periphery (with or without semiperiphery) structure of the world- economy; and 2) the impossibility of explaining the transformation of the European world-economy into a capitalist world-economy without a theoretically and historically plausible account of the competitive pressures that have promoted and sustained the transformation.

On the first issue, which was raised also by Skocpol, it have long been convinced that class relations and conflicts are as irreducible to core-periphery relations, as the latter are to class relations and conflicts (see, for example, Arrighi and Piselli 1987). The dogmatic insistence of many world-systemists on the primacy of core-periphery relations to counter the opposite claim by their critics has been one of the most disturbing features of the development or, rather, underdevelopment of the perspective. Its only result has been to alienate from the perspective some of its most serious practitioners. Eric Wolf is a case in point. As Jane Schneider (1995: 7-8) observes, quoting Wolf himself,

Occasionally, Wolf has been taken as a "world-system" theorist, bent on demonstrating unequal exchange between "core," "peripheral," and "semiperipheral" regions, differentially capable of producing high-profit goods and services. But, although he is ever aware of unevenness in the world distribution of profit and power, he faults this approach for obliterating the "range and variety" of the micropopulations "habitually investigated by anthropologists" .... If anything, the very concept "periphery" reifies difference, as if the ordering of power in the world had a teleology in which Europe... had been destined to ascend to "core" status and stay there. Such thinking masks the contradictory reality, attended to by Wolf, that Europeans were "peripheral" to more developed power complexes for centuries.
The sooner world-systemists stop seeking an explanation for almost everything in core-periphery relations and their temporal equivalent--A-B phases of Kondratieffs and suchlike cycles--the better for the credibility of their analyses to anybody who is not already a true believer. This brings us to the second issue mentioned above. Core-periphery relations and A-B phases cannot explain how and why in the course of the "long" sixteenth century the European world-economy metamorphosed into a capitalist world- economy. Brenner is perfectly right in pointing out 1) that world-economies have to a greater or lesser extent existed throughout world history without becoming capitalist, and 2) that in order to account for the capitalist metamorphosis of the European world-economy in the "long" sixteenth century one has to explain what kind of competitive pressures promoted and sustained the transformation.

Wallerstein has of course always been aware that he needs such an explanation. But the one that he provided in TMWS and in subsequent writings (see in particular Wallerstein 1992)-- basically, that in a moment of conjunctural desperation (the "crisis of feudalism") feudal landlords decided to become full- fledged capitalist entrepreneurs--has always made as little sense to me as it did to Brenner and Skocpol. In order to come up with something better than this, we must take leave from this non- debate between Wallerstein and his critics to examine briefly the debate Wallerstein never had with his great inspirer, Fernand Braudel.

3. The Braudel-Wallerstein Non-debate.

A French historian close to Braudel once told me off the record that Braudel didn't really know what he was doing until Wallerstein came along and told him. I suppose that what he meant is that Braudel did not know that he was doing world- systems analysis until he read TMWS. True or false, the remark later induced me to check how Braudel responded to TMWS, which he read before completing the third volume of his Civilization and Capitalism.

The very title of Braudel's volume III--The Perspective of the World--betrays a Wallersteinian influence. And the explicitly "theoretical" Chapter I is packed with references full of praise for Wallerstein's "world-economy model". More implicitly than explicitly, however, Braudel's interpretation of the rise of a capitalist world-economy in Europe departs in key respects from Wallerstein's. It is on this departures that I will focus.

Braudel's most explicit disagreement with Wallerstein is set out in the well-known passage in which he confesses of not sharing "Wallerstein's fascination with the sixteenth century."

For Wallerstein, the European world-economy was the matrix of capitalism. I do not dispute this point, since to say central zone or capitalism is to talk about the same reality. By the same token however, to argue [as I do] that the world-economy built in the sixteenth century on its European site was not the first to occupy this ... continent, amounts to saying that capitalism did not wait for the sixteenth century to make its first appearance. I am therefore in agreement with the Marx who wrote (though later went back on this) that European capitalism--indeed he even says capitalist production--began in thirteenth- century Italy. (Braudel 1984: 57)
This spatio-temporal relocation of the origins of European capitalism--from the sixteenth to the thirteenth century and from Northwestern Europe to Italy--betrays a far more fundamental departure from Wallerstein's theory and history of the capitalist world-economy than may appear at first sight. For one thing, the idea that more than one capitalist world-economy may have occupied the European continent at different points in historical time is absent from Wallerstein's theory of the modern world- system. The idea, in contrast, is central to Braudel's reconstruction of the dynamics of the European world- economy.

Thus, in introducing his discussion of the "divisions of time" needed "to locate chronologically, and the better to understand those historical monsters, the world-economies," he suggests that not just two but "several world-economies have succeeded... each other in the geographical expression that is Europe. Or rather the European world-economy has changed shape several times since the thirteenth century" (Braudel 1984: 70-1). And in concluding that same discussion, he makes clear that these changes are not merely quantitative but qualitative, true "breaks with the past" marking "transitions from one system to another." These transitions are announced by "crises" which "mark the beginning of a process of destructuration: one coherent world system which has developed at a leisurely pace is going into or completing its decline, while another system is being born amid much hesitation and delay" (Braudel 1984: 85)

In subsequent chapters, Braudel seeks the clue to these systemic metamorphoses of the European world-economy in the succession of "dominant cities" that came to constitute both "its centres of gravity" and its "organizing centres" (1984: 35-6). In this account there is not a word about the "crisis of feudalism"--the only systemic crisis Wallerstein acknowledges prior to the present crisis--nor about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, which is central to Wallerstein's account. The focus is instead on how a world-economy centered on city-states was transformed into a world-economy centered on territorial states and, in the process, expanded its tentacles to encompass the entire globe.

At the basis of these differences in accounting for the emergence and evolution of the Eurocentric capitalist world- economy, we can detect equally fundamental differences in the very conceptualization of capitalism and its relationship to a trade-based division of labor. Whereas Wallerstein defines capitalism as a mode of production grounded in a trade-based division of labor, Braudel defines it as the top layer of the world of trade--the layer, that is, where the large profits are made--which he contrasts with the intermediate layer of the market economy and the bottom layer of the "non-economy" or, rather, the layer of extremely elementary and mostly self- sufficient economies (1982: 21-2, 229-30).

Whatever their comparative merits, these different definitions lead Braudel and Wallerstein to look in different directions for the origins of world capitalism. Wallerstein looks for them in the organization of agricultural production in the territorial states of northwestern Europe--the states, that is, that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries emerged as the leading locales of capitalist production. Braudel, in contrast, looks for them in the organization of long-distance trade and high finance in the city-states of northern Italy. These city-states were interstitial formations, which by the seventeenth and eighteenth century had lost out in the intercapitalist competitive struggle, but for most of what Braudel calls the "extended" sixteenth century (1350-1650) had been the leading capitalist organizations of the European world- economy.

Unfortunately, there never was a debate between these two great exponents of the world-system perspective on this fundamental discrepancy on where to look for the origins of the Eurocentric capitalist world-system. This is unfortunate because the reorientation of the search for origins advocated by Braudel is in my view necessary in order to fill the truly "missing link" in Wallerstein's theory of the modern world-system--namely, a plausible account of the competitive pressures that have promoted and sustained the capitalist transformation of the Eurocentric world-system. To be sure, while Wallerstein at least offers an implausible account of the emergence of such pressures--the subjective metamorphosis of feudal landlords into full-fledged capitalist entrepreneurs in a moment of conjunctural desperation- -Braudel offers no account at all. But the direction in which he points as the original seat of the transformation is the right direction. That's where I have looked in my own research on the origins of the world capitalist system--a world capitalist system which, as Wallerstein has put it so well in a previously quoted passage, has transformed itself from being a world to becoming the first historical system of the world. By way of conclusion, let me briefly point out how the findings of this research (Arrighi 1994) bear upon the two non-debates examined in this paper.

IV. The Interstitial Origins of the World Capitalist System.

The first and most important consideration is that Wallerstein's failure to respond to the challenges posed to his theory of the origins and dynamics of the modern world system by his most influential critics is due primarily to the fact that he remained trapped in the research agenda of the then predominant state- and class-centric analyses. World capitalism did not originate within the economic activities and social relations that were predominant in the larger territorial organizations of the European world. Rather, it originated in the interstices that connected those larger territorial organizations to one another and their totality to other "worlds"--as magisterially sketched in Janet Abu-Lughod's (1989) account of the Eurasian world trading system of the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries. The organizations that developed in these interstices, both in Europe and elsewhere, were not territorial states at all, but city-states, quasi-city-states, extra- territorial business networks, and other non-territorial organizations. It was within these organizations that the largest profits were made and various forms of capitalism thrived. As a rule, these profits originated in long-distance trade and high-finance, although they sometimes found their way into the reorganization of short-distance trade and production proper (Braudel 1982).

In seeking the origins of world capitalism in the agriculture of the larger territorial states of Europe, Wallerstein necessarily finds himself in great difficulties in responding to his critics for the simple reason that world- capitalism did not originate within, but in-between and on the outer-rim of these states. The crisis of feudalism and the so- called transition from feudalism to capitalism in European agriculture are no doubt very relevant to an understanding of English, French, Polish, German and many other "national" histories of the European world. They nonetheless are largely if not entirely irrelevant to an understanding of the process whereby the European world-economy became a capitalist world- economy. An understanding of this process requires that we focus on the interstitial growth of capitalism within and between "worlds", in an attempt to provide some plausible account of how and why in Europe and only in Europe this interstitial growth, so to say, got out of hand, subjected the territorial states themselves to its logic, and thereby propelled them towards the "endless" accumulation of capital. The account that I have proposed (see Arrighi 1994: especially chapters 1 and 2) combines three basic ideas: (1) Braudel's idea that the Italian city- states were the original centers and organizers of the "first" capitalist world-economy; (2) Garrett Mattingly's (1988) idea that these same city-states came to be organized into an inter- city-state system that anticipated by two centuries the main features of the Westphalia system; and (3) William McNeill's (1982) idea that the inter-state armament race, which has been a constant and distinguishing feature of the Eurocentric world- system, also originated in the Italian system of city-states.

In this account the competitive pressures that have promoted and sustained the capitalist transformation and the "endless" expansion of the European world-economy are structural and systemic rather than local and conjunctural. Moreover, their strength constantly increases over time provoking the recurrent systemic crises and developmental breakthroughs that have enabled the Eurocentric world system to globalize itself. In my view, the account meets the most important and valid criticism of Wallerstein's theory of the modern world system without making any concession to the detractors of the world-system perspective. My only hope is that it will not become the object of yet another non-debate.


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