Brief reflections on the politics of Dune

MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

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I read the six-book series Dune as a teenager. Dune has re-entered popular culture and consciousness thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s blockbuster adaptation (now in cinemas).


I think Denis Villeneuve’s Dune does a great job adapting the first half (or maybe two-thirds) of Frank Herbert’s original novel. It avoids two big potential mistakes: 1. To sugercoat its more complex and unsettling themes and 2. to try to compress the narrative into a more bitesize chunk. It’s a long film and there’s more to come.

The politics of Dune are complex and claims are made by both Left and Right

I knew that when it was first published it was seen as a countercultural parable warning against ecological devastation and autocratic rule. It can be seen that way but it also has darker themes. Paul Atreides, the main protagonist, is the product of a eugenics program. He is bred to have precognitive abilities that allow him to exert power over others. His Fremen army is the product of natural selection with the harsh desert environment of the planet Arrakis allowing only the best adapted and strongest to survive. Paul is not a hero. He has or develops a multi-millennia plan for renewal which accepts the sacrifice of billions. Herbert himself saw the series as a critique of authoritarianism demonstrating for his readers that “superheroes are disastrous for humankind.” Once Paul realises what he has done, what he has become, and how he has become detached from his humanity he plots to end his own despotic command over humankind’s fate.

Herbert himself said: “I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it.”
Herbert liner notes quoted in Touponce, William F. (1988). “Herbert’s Reputation”, p. 24.

Dune can be read (wrongly in my view) as a Messianic white saviour leading the universe forward. Writing in Counter-Currents Trevor Lynch says: “Herbert has quite compelling reasons for his belief that liberal democracy will not take mankind to the stars and that mankind can only spread across the galaxy by returning to archaic social forms like hereditary monarchy, feudalism, and initiatic spiritual orders”.
https://counter-currents.com/2021/10/denis-villeneuves-dune-part-i/

It’s certainly true that Dune heavily features archaic social forms rather than democratic or collective structures. Yet the Fremen rely on each other and have tribal rather than feudal features. Additionally, as Ong points out:

“Herbert’s series looks openly at authoritarianism and not only the burdens placed on those who are subjected to dictatorships, but also the inhumanity it demands of those in power. It remains critical of the forces that seek out charismatic powerful figures to solve all our problems. It demonstrates the dangers found in the “big man” syndrome of politics or messianic ideals of religion.”
https://thetempest.co/2021/07/24/books/dune-frank-herbert/

Some on the alt-Right offer interpretations of Dune to highlight aspects they favour. Yet Dune is not so straightforward. Ethnic influences are diverse in Dune. As Helena Ong points out:

“The series draws heavily from religious themes and Middle Eastern culture. The nomadic Fremen characters, who play a central role in the series, are not only dark-skinned, but they also use a language that has close similarities to Arabic. Herbert not only uses thinly-veiled references to the Arabic language, but also Sufism mysticism and history of the Arab world, including the Berbers of North Africa and Sunni Muslims. He drew from many sources, such as 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun and Lesley Blanch‘s travel biographies of the Middle East.

Villeneuve has spoken of the “beautiful idea” of Paul finding comfort and wisdom in another culture and having the curiousity to explore it. (IMDB On the Scene).

Perhaps that’s why Trevor Lynch (in a largely thought-provoking article) descends into a discussion of the ethnic make up of the latest Dune film.

Dune can appeal to both Left and Right in different ways. It’s a complex narrative.

It’s no wonder then that Dune is contested ground between Left and Right. As Joshua Pearson points out in Tribune:

“Some have decried Dune as an exemplar of the most toxic tropes lurking in science fiction, calling the novel an orientalist fever dream, a pean to eugenics, and a seductive monument to fascist aesthetics; others look at the same text and see an excoriation of hero-worship, a cautionary tale of revolutionary dreams betrayed, and a warning about Indigenous sovereignty subverted by a charismatic charlatan.”

https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/10/dune-denis-villeneuve-frank-herbert-science-fiction-book-film

It’s also clear that some of the alt-Right interpretations may be closer to Herbert’s views than many of us would like to admit.

Like all good Science Fiction though it deals with a possible or imagined future it really makes you think about now.

As Kenn Orphan wrote:

“When Westerners (see: Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Brits, Australians) see Dune this fall, I wonder if any of them will have any idea that Arrakis is a perfect symbol for Afghanistan (or even Iraq, or Bolivia, etc.). Or that the much coveted and fought over “spice” is code for opium (or oil, or lithium, or whatever the Empire and its imperial houses demand or wish to control). Or that the imperial bad guys in the film, complete with their noble houses, obscene material wealth and military might, are symbolic of their own governments, corporate powers and armed forces?”
https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/08/23/the-myth-of-empire-and-the-real-message-of-dune/

I certainly did.

By Pat Harrington

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