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After the Bell: ‘Dune’, global economics and the political moment

After the Bell: ‘Dune’, global economics and the political moment
(Photo: Unsplash)

What does the movie ‘Dune’ tell us about international economics and politics? Like so many other important novels/movies, a lot more than we expect. ‘Dune’, the best-selling science fiction book of all time and now a two-part film, is particularly significant right now. I can’t help feeling it’s a little eerie that it’s become such a hit. Is there a significance here?

The second of the Dune movies directed by Denis Villeneuve has just come out, and both of the movies have been unexpected successes. Just the existence of the movies is something of a surprise; previous attempts to make the complicated story into an intelligible film have been partial disasters. As a consequence, getting the financing for another remake was extremely difficult and Villeneuve ran out of money after Part One. Fortunately, his rendition was successful, so Part Two is now in the can and Part Three is likely to follow.

The Dune series is the largest-selling science fiction book yet written … but only if you consider The Lord of the Rings to be fantasy rather than science fiction. The two epic series have big overlaps. Both are coming-of-age novels combined with underdog battles against great evil. But there are also very big differences; for one thing, The Lord of the Rings is entirely missing spaceships, which I consider a big disappointment. Or large sandworms, for that matter. 

Philosophically, I think Dune is very much a function of hippiedom, and its ambient philosophy of “the system”, control and escape. It is hard not to notice that Paul Atreides gets high plenty, has “dreams”, and sees the future. The Lord of the Rings is more rooted in classical and Germanic folklore. It’s hard not to notice that Aragorn II of Elessar has an impressive name and a very impressive sword. The Fellowship of the Ring battle plays out as good against evil in terms of a heroic mission. But it’s by no means revolutionary in its overall purpose. It was, after all, a kind of lyrical and symbolic retelling of the victory over fascism and Nazism after World War 2.


Dune is a different kettle of fish. In one sense, it is very political; the Fremen — which is obviously derived from Freemen spelt as badly as I occasionally do — are very much revolutionaries, trying to cast off the yoke of imperialism imposed on them to plunder their planet’s crucial resource. They are modern-day EFF supporters, surely. The “spice” is an echo, of course, of spices plundered by the Dutch East India Company and its cohorts and competitors in the 16th and 17th centuries. The spice is crucial for interstellar travel, just as oil is crucial for travel today.

It’s also an extrapolation of the modern relationship between the Gulf states and the rest of the world.  Someone once told me that Dune is essentially a tale that inadvertently justifies Islamic jihad, with several jihadist subplots in the book. But, as you travel through the series, it’s also a warning not only against jihad but also against absolute rulers. This is one of the logical oddities of Dune: it happens in the era of starships, but strangely, the political system is based more or less on the fiefdoms of Europe in the Middle Ages. Odd that.

Frank Herbert wrote Dune and lived most of his life in Washington state on the West Coast of the US. He got the idea for Dune after being assigned to write a magazine article about the Oregon Dunes near Florence, Oregon. There were experiments there on planting different grasses in an attempt to control the spread of the dunes. Consequently, an ecological theme comes through in the book, which was a nascent social issue at the time. Herbert was also interested in mushrooms and is thought to have experimented with psilocybin. More hippiedom. 

Power and personalities

The other political issue of the day was Watergate, and Herbert later wrote, “All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people tend to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.”

And what a wonderfully modern, and ancient, idea that is. It’s also very appropriate and apposite for our current political moment. I think the economist Brad DeLong grabs the essence in a recent blog post on Dune

He wrote, “Dune is the story of how Paul Atreides grows up and acquires expertise, yes. But Dune is equally the story of how Paul Atreides becomes the BOSS. And those two acquisitions of mastery have to be seen as the same and indeed have to be the same — we cannot celebrate Paul’s acquisition of strength and knowledge and capabilities from Paul’s acquisition of a position of domination. And exploitation.”

The reason this is all very interesting is, I suspect, because of the way narrative trains our reflexes. A great narrative sets out an event and its consequences; it’s the “and then … and then … and then” that is so important. In setting out a consequential sequence of events, it trains us to anticipate outcomes, or at least think about step-by-step sequences and their repercussions. 

Through narrative, like Paul Atreides, we develop the ability to see the future. Or at least a possible version of the future. As if we were forewarned. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John P says:

    Tolkien himself specifically stated, when asked, that the novel had nothing to do with either Hitler or Stalin. The characters were created well before the start of WW2.

  • Dave Crawford says:

    The juxtaposing of medieval fiefdoms, spaceships and sandworms always fascinated me since I read Dune in the 1980s. Tim is the first person to mention it. Sounds like home.

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