The Poverty of the Peasant Mode of Production

The Peasant Mode of Production

First, a natural question for those not versed in Marxian terminology, is “what is a mode of production”? Put simply, a mode of production is a self-replicating economic system. Here I draw on 2008 article by Wickham which reprises many of the arguments in Framing. Defending, his use of the peasant mode of production, Wickham writes:

“ I do not want to fall into the trap of extreme substantivism, the arguments of Karl Polanyi and, still more, some of his followers, and some more romantic Marxist traditions as well, that no economic “law” is universal, so that even the interaction between supply and demand is historically contingent. But it seems to me far from implausible that the way techniques and the labour process, on the one hand, interact with exploitation and resistance, on the other, is dependent on the economic logic of specific modes.” (Wickham, 2008, p 5)

Wickham argues that late antique and early medieval economy were characterized by a mode of production: the peasant mode of production. This serves as an ideal type. The peasant mode of production is first and foremost a description of how peasants behave in preindustrial societies:

“in the ideal-type peasant mode his exchange is reciprocal, embedded in the network of social relationships, and also based on need. In the peasant mode, surpluses are not easily accumulated; after the acquisition of essential goods like tools and utensils, they are generally given away, as part of the social network, to kin first, to friends next, to other neighbours thereafter; or else they are collectively consumed, in celebrations of different kinds” (Wickham, 2005, 537).

It has important implications. In particular, it is an interrelated system that

“discourages any single household from going it alone economically and pushing to improve production, either by increasing its hours of work or improving its technology, for its members will simply end up giving the resultant surplus to the less active and therefore needier people around them; accumulation without such generosity is too risky, as it will cut a household off from its neighbours, and in a bad year it will not receive help from others. ” (Wickham, 2005, 537)

The following features are crucial to this mode of production: (1) peasants have highly inelastic labor supply curves (“since its members do not have to give surplus to outsiders, they do not work so hard” (Wickham, 2005, 537); and (2) left to their own devices peasants will not enter into extensive market transactions.

“The accumulation of surplus, and the creation of a market sufficiently stable to allow artisanal specialization, was thus the work of lords” (Wickham 2005, p 536)

Thus for Wickham evidence of widespread market production is evidence for high levels of elite extraction and exploitation. To an observer not looking through this particular analytic lens, a natural inference when confronted with evidence for mass produced glass, for instance, is that the market for manufactured consumer goods was deep, and that a broad spectrum of the population including richer peasants and an urban middle class must have had sufficient incomes to purchase such goods. But, according to Wickham’s model, such an inference is strictly wrong: “ the more mass-produced glass was, the larger or richer the élite” (Wickham, 2008 p. 13) . He takes it as given that the only way the elite could be richer was through more thorough exploitation and surplus extraction. Therefore he concludes that “[t]he peasants, therefore, had to be better off than under the Roman empire, because they were giving less to landowners and rulers” (Wickham 2008, 707, emphasis added). It is important to stress that this is an implication of the model. It is not based on historical evidence since the surviving wage and price data don’t allow us to do even crude estimates of living standards.

Assessing The Peasant Mode of Production as a Model

We can assess the model presented by Wickham by comparing it to standard neoclassical economic models.

The Neoclassical Model in Comparison

Neoclassical economics gets a bad rap. Hardly a day goes by without an article appearing in my twitter feed attacking it. But I think these critiques usually fall flat because they do not demonstrate that the alternatives would do a better job of generating testable predictions on the basis of a parsimonious set of assumptions.

“elaborate productive patterns and large-scale bulk exchange are above all signs of exploitation and of the resultant hierarchies of wealth; if one wishes to praise exchange complexity, economic “development”, it is that which one is praising” (Wickham, 2005, 707).

But if this was true for the early middle ages why is it not true for our society today? Why is greater economic complexity not merely a sign of greater exploitation? The answer again is that that we live under a different mode of production. But what causes a change in the mode of production and when did such a shift occur?



Economist at George Mason University specializing in economic history, law and economics and institutional economics.

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Mark Koyama

Mark Koyama

Economist at George Mason University specializing in economic history, law and economics and institutional economics.