Nice extraction of surplus if you can get it

Dominus Corleone

Chris Wickham has a new article out on the feudal economy (10.1093/pastj/gtaa018), which has got me thinking about the topic from a different angle (though probably not the angle Chris was expecting). First of all, I’ll say that since I haven’t read a lot of Marx, let alone all the ins and outs of the Brenner debate, I’m not in a position to say whether Chris’ view of the feudal mode of production accords with traditional Marxist accounts of the medieval period. He does, however, specifically point out (p. 5) that Marx’s views aren’t really relevant, since:

no one working in the 1850s and 1860s knew enough about feudal societies to be able to make any kind of systematic analysis of their underlying economic logic. Probably, I regret to say, this is still true today.

Chris also gives a clear definition of his ideal-type feudal mode of production (pp.  9-10):

it is a socio-economic system based on the exploitative relations of production between peasants, that is to say subsistence cultivators, and lords. At its core are peasant family units, who work the land and raise animals, usually do some subsistence artisanal work such as weaving, and also, in regions where they are available, mine metals…The main relationship of dominance and system of surplus expropriation here consists of peasants giving surplus, often but not only in rent and services, to lords, in various forms, under the at least implicit threat of violence. The surplus that lords take thus depends on actual or potential class struggle, and is not based directly on the market. Lords can affect the production process by demanding different types of rent, and they frequently do. But they do not have a structural role in production, and their attempts to exercise forms of direct control over it, although these are certainly documented (indeed, quite well documented, as our records tend to be the work of lords), have seldom lasted all that long… Such external powers, which I am here generically calling ‘lords’, can be landlords extracting rent, or states and other political powers exacting tax or tribute, or both.

The feudal mode of production is thus fundamentally based on class struggle and Chris argues that a lot of economic “development” was just lords getting more out of peasants (p. 14). But he also goes on to discuss the fact that peasants in some areas (such as thirteenth-century England) were actually keeping quite a lot of their surplus themselves and finding ways to make extra money, such as the wage-labour from the young people in a peasant household.

What Chris focuses on (pp. 19-20) is the “high-equilibrium” feudal-mode economy in which lords are dominant, markets and towns develop, and peasants are also increasingly able to use these markets. What doesn’t happen, even in areas with proto-industry, is a move to industrial capitalism (pp. 28-29). Instead, Chris discusses the “economic logic of feudalism” which was (p. 35)

based on the fact that the peasant majority was necessary to the basic production process, and lords were not; this continued steadily to bring down rents and taxes, except when lords (and by now states) put the effort into increasing them, which meant that peasants tended to maintain their participation in this commercialized world.

So a general tendency of the economic logic of feudalism was to establish, eventually, reasonably high-functioning production and exchange systems, which in some cases showed considerable dynamism.

Chris’ concern here is with economics and particularly the role of peasants, who could always withdraw demand from the market and revert to more production for subsistence, and in this way sustain the feudal economy. But I want to add in, from a cultural history perspective, the lords’ logic. Since capitalism would have made them richer, why were they so slow to move towards it? As the title of my post implies, I think there’s one obvious reason; the feudal mode of production was an easier way of living well than the alternatives.

Leaving aide any moral scruples, if you’re going to extract surplus from agricultural workers, it’s easier being a lord than either a slave-driver or a capitalist. There were undoubtedly sadistic slaveowners who enjoyed forcing their slaves to do hard work, but it required sustained, routine effort by such owners to prevent resistance. (Of course, such enforcement could be delegated to others, but then there’s the principal-agent problem of your representative skimming off the profits). Running a capitalist enterprise also requires sustained effort by the business owner to ensure that you have a supply of wage labourers and that they are doing their work productively. Again, if that supervision is delegated, you have to do a lot of checking of the supervisors.

On the other hand, the most basic form of rent/tribute taking is you and a bunch of heavies going round once a year to a village to collect a chunk of the harvest. Even when you get more sophisticated forms of rent/tax, which is collected by a headman/steward, they don’t have to monitor the peasants every day, and if you have more or less customary rents/dues, you don’t have to do that much checking up on your agent. It all takes a lot less time, which means that you could spend more of your life living like a lord, which is, after all, what most people want.

It also probably required less of a state infrastructure than either capitalism or (most) slave-owning societies. The need for effective state-backed institutions to provide effective markets and capitalism has been frequently stressed by the new institutional economists. Karl Persson, “Markets and coercion in medieval Europe,” in The Cambridge history of capitalism. Volume 1, The rise of capitalism: from ancient origins to 1848, edited by Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson (2014) (10.1017/CHO9781139095099.009 9) claims that the state was essential for enforcing medieval serfdom and slavery (p. 229):

The policy of the Crown, the central authority, was essential for the possibility of maintaining an agreement among landlords not to compete for labor from other estates, what we can call the “employ no fugitive” rule.

I think he’s mostly right about slavery. It’s possible for a stateless society to maintain slavery based on war-captives (as some hunter-gather societies do), but most large-scale slave societies have needed an elaborate legal system to enforce slavery: the southern US experience shows that maintaining a slave system without centralised support is very difficult.

But I don’t think Persson is right about the feudal mode of production more generally needing the state. He assumes that peasants can just relocate if the local lord is oppressive but ignores the sunk costs of their farm. Once you’ve got buildings, cleared land, animals, neighbours etc, only a very pressing reason is going to make you move. And in the absence of a state and at least some legal institutions, you’re not likely either to know about or trust the promise of another lord that they’ll treat you better. One of the reasons the feudal/tributary production mode is so successful is that while it can make use of the state, it doesn’t need the state to thrive in the way that capitalism and most forms of slavery do. Mafia protection rackets are run on the same economic logic: after all, what is a don, but a dominus?

The feudal economy, therefore, may not have been the most efficient form of surplus extraction, but as a quick and dirty solution it wasn’t bad. Even in the early modern period, capitalism may well not have looked terribly attractive to a lot of the gentry. Would you rather be Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, all of whose ships may have sunk, or the provincial squire watching the play, with an estate which even a bad harvest won’t ruin? Economists extoling the “creative destruction” of unfettered capitalism need to remember that lots of people don’t particularly want financial risk, especially long-term.

This ties into what’s been suggested as one of the key differences between the modern UK and the US attitudes to work, the Old Rectory syndrome:

Americans, said the author, want to be rich. The British, on the other hand, want to be comfortably off. The Old Rectory, he said, was the pinnacle of British middle-class ambition. The Americans would work until they were rich but the British would stop working once they had achieved the lifestyle epitomised by owning an old rectory in a village or country town.

Speaking as someone who grew up in small villages which had a “big house” or two, the family who owns one of those (or even more so an estate) is a big fish in a small pond, who gets local deference even from those who aren’t directly dependent on them. Being gentry, being the local landowner gets you social status that wealth alone doesn’t bring. The economic logic of feudalism helped it survive for a long time. But we also shouldn’t forget the psychological and affective side of it, which is even more persistent. 

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