21st Century USA ≈ 17th Century Polish Empire?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 7/27/2011 12:04:00 AM
Tis perhaps appropriate that my fondness for historically informed performances (HIP) of classical music ties into international political economy for two obvious reasons. First, with most music commissioned for religious rather than secular purposes during past eras, it highlights how music played a role in then-common agglomerations of church and state. Second, music was often commissioned for momentous occasions such as feting nobility for obviously political purposes.

So, instead of boring you with a roundup of opinions on whether the impending US technical default matters or not--you can do that yourselves and I can't say my opinion is necessarily more accurate than anyone else's--I bring you music and history. (The IPE Zone values cultural sophistication, historical referents, and attitudes of elegant despair on all epochs of subprime globalization.) You see, dear readers, one of my favourite performances remains the Academy of Ancient Music under Andrew Manze presenting Vivaldi's Concert for the Prince of Poland. The press blurb for the recording goes like so:
On March 21st, 1740, a gala concert was held at the famous Ospedale della Pietà in Venice to honour the visiting Frederick Christian, Prince of Poland. The four concertos written by the sixty-one-year-old Vivaldi still survive in the manuscript which was presented to the Prince as a souvenir of the occasion. Possibly the composer's last works, their brilliant technical writing, unusual scorings and innovative instrumental sonorities surely rank them among his most delightful music.
Obviously, you did not commission Vivaldi to write music for pissant guests. Even before he was immortalized in Muzak renditions of The Four Seasons played in elevators all over the world, he was a most distinguished member of Venetian society in its heyday. Just as Venice was then a trading centre keen on opening up trade routes throughout the continent, so was the Polish Empire no small beer as you can see from the map above. It was an empire in the true sense of the word, spanning vast tracts of Eastern Europe. To be sure, both Venice and the Polish Empire had entered into a stage of decline by this time. Still, the grandeur of the occasion served to reinforce the heights they had achieved before succumbing to the inevitable lethargy and competition from nimbler entities.

And so it was with great interest that I read American Tom Streithorst's comparison between the Polish Empire and modern-day America in Prospect--a left-of-centre British magazine focussing on politics. Although others have compared 21st century USA to the Roman and British empires as obvious analogies, I think there's something to be said for comparing it to the Polish Empire. Some thought-provoking analogies are made on how inbuilt features promoting institutional gridlock ground the show to a screeching halt in a relatively short span of time:
In the 1600s, the Polish Lithuanian state was a behemoth in eastern Europe, rich and powerful, feared from Stockholm to Moscow. One hundred years later, it ceased to exist, devoured by its neighbours. Perhaps the central cause of its decline was the liberum veto. Merely by standing up in parliament and shouting “I will not allow,” a single nobleman could nullify any legislation passed by the house. In the 17th century the liberum veto was used sparingly. By the 18th century it was commonplace. With its government crippled by the requirement of unanimity, and unable to respond effectively to changing circumstances, Poland ceased to exist in 1793, its territory divided between Russia, Prussia, and the Habsburg Empire.

No, even if the unthinkable happens and the US government defaults on its debt, I doubt its land will be taken over by Canada and Mexico. But the destruction of Poland shows how traditional constitutional arrangements can cripple a country. Without a supermajority of 60 in the US Senate, the will of the majority can be totally ignored. The filibuster, like the liberum veto, used to be deployed only in exceptional circumstances. Today it is a weapon used at will. Because each state has two senators, no matter its size, representatives elected by just 10 per cent of the population can stymie reforms demanded by most.
As Harry Lee Kuan Yew might say, the problem may be too much democracy.