One of the things I've been occupying my time with now I have moved from being a soap-dodging, scrounging student to a work-shy, scrounging member of the unemployed, apart from reading the jobs section of every paper imaginable most days, is reading things that aren't academic political theory or novels. Once whoever's got it out gets round to returning them, for example, I will be trying to get my teeth in some of Jared Diamond's dauntingly thick tomes. The most recent thing I worked my way through was the first volume of Norman Davies' history of Poland, 'God's Playground', which runs up to the third partition in 1795. It's quite good, although I think it suffers a little from the decision to structure it with the thematic chapters - economy, social structure, political institutions, religious belief, foreign affairs and so on - before the actual chronology, since, unless you know the history of Poland in some detail, it can be a little difficult to grasp exactly what's going on.
Davies is quite big on the unanticipated consequences of individual decisions, citing a mid-seventeenth century decision by the Poles to give up, believing they could fairly easily regain it, the Ukraine east of the Dneiper to the Muscovites. They then, rather than trying to get it back, chose to concentrate their efforts on protecting Christendom from the Turks, including rescuing one of their major regional adversaries, Austro-Hungary, by routing the Sultan's forces at the walls of Vienna and embarking on a rather ill-fated expedition to present-day Romania. The Poles never did regain the left bank of the Ukraine, and the loss of population and economic resources proved crucial in their subsequent military collapse, not least because it handed those resources to the Muscovites, who, by absorbing much of the Ukraine, genuinely became an Empire of all the Russias.
However, what really comes across strongly from his history is the importance of political and social institutions. Poland had, until its eventual absorption by Russia, Prussia - which had been a vassal state but a hundred years previously - and Austro-Hungary in 1795, been an elective monarchy with an immensely, within Poland at least, powerful nobility. Not only did the nobles elect the King, allow for widespread foreign influence, but he was, to a significant degree, merely an executive officer of their parliament, which, for around four hundred years, had a rule of unanimity, creating what in retrospect is entirely predictable political chaos. When the King was a strong individual, he was able to mobilise Polish forces for successful military campaigns - John Sobieski was a hero across Christendom for a reason - if little else, but when he was weak, the magnates did entirely as they pleased, which was often to ally with neighbouring states or ravage the countryside in legalised rebellions known as Confederacies. One of the factors behind the decision to give up left bank Ukraine was that the King's army, under the command of Sobieski, had just been defeated by one such rising, headed by Jerzy Lubomirski, which had been provoked by the threat of withdrawal of noble privileges, for example.
This total absence of institutionalised central power meant that, in the late eighteenth century when Poland was substanially larger and more populous than Prussia - Poland had much the same population as France, which within the next fifty years would achieve near-total continental dominance, even after the first partition - yet was consistently bullied by it. It was also poor, and poor, Davies argues, because both of the political dominance of a parasitic class of robber barons with little interest in maintaining that dominance and earlier dependence on markets for grain which had since collapsed, partly as a result of the emergence of competitors, but also because of the failure to recreate them after early to mid seventeenth century disruptions. Not enough grain was grown to send much to market in the aftermath of the wars, and then fewer traders came for it, and so it became more difficult to support expanding grain production the next year in the absence of funds, starting a vicious downward spiral which saw overall production collapse totally. The collapse of cities and so the possibility of economic diversification, after the same disruptions - a series of foreign invasions and civil wars, to be fair - was equally never remedied, because of the lack of interest in doing so on the part of nobles to whom they would have been challengers for political authority.
There seem to me to be one major lesson to be learned from the story of Poland's decline from being the largest and one of the wealthiest states in Europe in the sixteenth century - from sea to shining sea as the Lithuanian half of the Commonwealth proclaimed, meaning from their homeland on the Baltic, to the Crimea - to the frankly pathetic and crisis-ridden entity of barely a hundred and fifty years later, that political and economic structures matter. Poland's unique system of Noble Democracy created forces of such centripetal strength that, in a way, the miracle is it lasted as long as it did, while the dependence on the export of grain for wealth, a commodity which could easily be controlled by the large landowners, left Poland incredibly vulnerable to shifts in demand - almost all the major European countries experienced endemic violence during the early Modern period, yet few other economies collapsed as spectacularly as Poland's.
The obvious parallel here is oil. I am not enough of an economist to know whether the forces tying global capitalism to oil are as strong as those that prevented Poland from centralising or dealing with its dependence on grain, or whether the difficulties that would await such economies if starved of oil are as significant as those posed for Poland by Russia's relentless expansionism, but it is worth bearing in mind that Poles, even as they were happily auctioning their independence to the highest bidder, mocked those who argued that their system of government was unjust, inefficient and weak, pointing, interestingly, to their freedom. They clearly underestimated the difficulties their political and economic system created and in actively opposing reform, did nothing to tackle or even amielorate them. Human nature does not change much, and the attractions of self-deception remain. Let us hope we are not falling victim to them.