The Poverty of the Peasant Mode of Production

My previous post criticized Peter Brown’s account of the decline of the Roman economy. Since Brown’s account is largely based on the work of Christ Wickham, some observers noted that I should really address my criticism to Wickham.

Wickham’s Framing the Middle Ages is a magisterial tome that documents the economic and social history of Europe from 400 AD to 800 AD. But at its heart is a specific model: the peasant mode of production. This essay points out some important weaknesses in this model. To the best of my knowledge, these weaknesses are not prominently acknowledged in the literature on the late Roman economy.

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.

Everything else follows from these basic propositions. Since peasants produce for subsistence, the only important moving part in the model is the level of surplus extraction i.e the elites. Peasants can only be induced to produce for the market by coercion as, for example, when the state requires that tax payments are paid in cash rather than in kind. The peasant mode of production “discourages any productive specialization that cannot be supported inside relatively small communities” (Wickham, 2005, 537). Therefore:

“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 peasant mode of production is internally consistent, and logical. Its assumptions and predictions are consistent with a wide array of evidence. Indeed Wickham is masterful at arraying before the reader an impressive body of evidence from a range of sources and societies.

But evidence consistent with the assumptions and predictions of a model is not to sufficient to rule out alternative explanations. What would make Wickham’s argument more compelling would be evidence for the specific causal arguments he proposes.

This is hard to come by given the nature of the evidence available. Wickham notes: “I also argued, as one frequently does in economic history, that this correlation was a causal one: that global economic complexity in any given region was caused by élite demand” (Wickham 2008, 12). But this is hardly convincing. This correlation between elite wealth and market complexity can be explained by an range of alternative hypotheses.

What about the assumptions of the model? The argument hinges on strong and essentially untestable assumptions. The model itself does almost no work. The conclusion that Wickham presents: that the fiscal demands of the state drove patterns of economic specialization follows directly from how Wickham specifies the peasant mode of production. His conclusion should come as no surprise. It is not inferred from the evidence. One one assumes that the demands of non-elite rural producers cannot generate significant economic change, increases in economic specialization must be driven by the demands of the elite.

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.

Since this is a not academic article, what follows will be concise. Perhaps I will expand on the argument here in more detail, and with references in the future. But for now I think it is quite straightforward to show that simple neoclassical economics is (1) consistent with the evidence about peasant behavior in the early middle ages; (2) can both generate the same predictions as the model advanced by Wickham; and generate a range of alternative hypotheses; (3) and that these alternative explanations for the economic contraction of the early middle ages are both supported by the evidence and more plausible and convincing that the state-centric argument put forth by Wickham in Framing.

(1) Neoclassical Economics is consistent with peasant behavior in the early middle ages. There is no need to assume that there was a distinct peasant mode of production.

The work of development economists like Jean-Philippe Platteau and Marcel Fafchamps nicely demonstrates that all the characteristics of peasants in subsistence economies discussed by anthropologists and political scientists such as James Scott — such as gift exchange, highly egalitarian norms, a reluctance to specialize in the production of cash crops etc — can be generated by simple rational choice models (see for example here, here, and here). Gift exchange and egalitarian norms are methods of ex post redistribution that are part of insurance systems that rational and maximizing individuals might well choose to engage in. Their existence does not disprove, and is in fact perfectly consistent with, the economic rationality of peasants. And we don’t need to suggest that the economic logic of the early middle ages was any different to the economic logic of any other historical period.

(2) Neoclassical models can generate both the predictions that the peasant mode of production and alternative predictions.

Take the prediction that peasant labor is inelastically supplied. In my own work I show that in a standard model, the labor supply curve of peasants may be highly inelastic in an economy where few consumer goods are available. This confirms to Wickham’s description of peasant behavior in the early middle ages. But in the same model, I show that, as time intensive consumer opportunities — such as tobacco, tea, and sugar — become available, then the very same individuals will become more willing to supply labor to the market in order to purchase these goods, and their labor supply will become more elastic.

(3) If there are alternative models and explanations that are also consistent with the evidence we should prefer models which are more plausible and less restrictive.

Following Dani Rodrik’s advice in his excellent Economic Rules, we should think about the plausibility of both a model’s assumptions and its conclusions.

The assumption that there are different modes of production that each have their own economic logic is itself problematic. Wickham’s own writing suggest an unease with it. It is both a strong assumption and an untestable one.

The conclusions that are drawn from this model are also implausible. They present a zero-sum economy world in which the complexity of the Roman economy reflected the ability of the Roman elites to extract surplus from a passive peasantry. Evidence of economic development therefore becomes evidence of exploitation. “In our period”, he writes:

“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?


Part of the disagreement between economic historians like myself and ancient historians like Chris Wickham and Peter Brown rests on the fruitfulness of a specific analytical framework: the peasant mode of production. I hope that I have shown that this framework is not fit for purpose. It makes extremely strong assumptions and generates implausible conclusions. Modern economics is replete with models that can both encompass the empirical regularities explained by the peasant mode of production and go beyond it in providing coherent explanations for how economic development in preindustrial societies might have undermined those empirical regularities.

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