Is Dune fascist? Nope...
But the Harkonnens and the Proud Boys have a lot in common
The release of Dune: Part One, an epic realisation of Frank Herbert’s 1956 novel Dune, has triggered an ownership war between liberalism, the left and the extreme right.
Some, such as historian Ofri Ilany, writing in Haaretz, have claimed thework “may be fascist” while praising its engagement with Islam. Others, such as Chris Dite on the leftwing website Jacobin, have sought to defend the work’s enduring attraction for the left, despite its reactionary politics. Meanwhile the US far right leader Richard Spencer has pontificated that the original book was a vindication of the “archeofuturist” project of global race war (not linking but see below)…
The book franchise has long been a source of cultural tropes among American fascists. It depicts a neo-feudalist world where a superhuman white hero mobilises an Arab-like people for a campaign of global genocide; where individual heroism and violence are prized among men; where women are either witches or sex toys; where the main villains among the elite are depicted as gay predators; where brutal rituals separate the human from the sub-human.
But the novel’s central themes also speak to the obessions of left counter-culture in the 1960s: the fragility of Empire; the potential of the oppressed peoples of the Third World to liberate humanity through struggle; the possibility of expanding consciousness through hallucinogens; the anti-human potential of both nuclear weapons and information technology. And of course, the entire book is framed around planetary ecology, and the warning that:
“an ecosystem… maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams that flow, order collapses”. [Herbert, Frank. Dune (p. 634). Kindle Edition.]
I’ve been a Dune fan since I read the novel in a single sitting, at the age of 13, followed by most of its sequels in my mid-teenage years. I formed the opinion that the sequels were crap. I hated the 1984 David Lynch movie. But I re-read the novel when I heard Denis Villeneuve’s movie was being made, and I’ve just read it again after watching the movie itself at the Odeon’s giant Dolby Cinema in Leicester Square.
Fremen as proletariat
What attracted me to the book, apart from its obvious male teen fantasies of heroism in combat, was probably what attracts most left-wing fans: I saw the Fremen, a dark-skinned people of the desert planet Arrakis, as a clear metaphor for the proletariat.
Through their suffering the Fremen develop an objective role in history — the liberator of humanity — despite the ideas in their heads. Like coal miners, the severity of their lives imbues them with a solidarity and combativeness that allows them to defeat the elite. During the 1970s (I must have read Dune in January 1973), the more I read of Marx, the more I interpreted the Fremen as a proxy proletariat with the same capacity to “bear” new social relations into the post-Imperial world.
In Dune, a revolution takes place against a horrific, fascistoid dictatorship (under the Harkonnen neo-feudal nobility), led by remnants of the most liberal elite family (the Atreides) together with the Fremen. The outcome is the greening of a planet whose ecosystem was artificially desertified in order to preserve access to the single most commodity in the system — “spice” (which in the 1960s was very clearly a stand-in for oil).
So any claim that the Dune novel is “fascist” must be contested. Its writer was a pro-Nixon Republican and a strike breaker, but that doesn’t make the book fascist.
However, the fact that US far right leaders like Richard Spencer have reclaimed Dune as some kind of prophecy of, and justification for, their project of ethno-supremacy and mass violence should force us to re-examine the book and question the movie. Like the miniatures game Warhammer 40,000, and the Elder Scrolls franchise in multiplayer gaming, aspects of Dune have been appropriated by into the montage of Western fascist culture. Fascist are targeting its fanbase for recruitment, and using its memes to communicate.
In response, I want to outline the justification for a progressive reading — both of the book and of the movie, whose narrative only covers the first half of Dune. To do this we need to understand the class dynamics of Herbert’s fictional universe in the year 10,190 AG, when the action begins (which would be the year 26,390 in the Common Era).
By the time Dune begins, the human species has spread across several galaxies. Its social system (in Marxist terms “mode of production”) resembles the late-feudalism/early capitalism of the 16th century. There is an Emperor, backed by an unbeatable praetorian military force, called the Sardaukar (modelled on the Ottoman janissary corps). The feudal aristocracy exists in uneasy co-operation with the Imperial state, and its major families are organised in a Lansdraad (council) — a tension similar to that between the feudal nobility and the Holy Roman Emperor.
However, there is also commerce and a market, dominated by CHOAM, a monopolistic trading company resembling the Dutch East India Company. The feudal families have shares in CHOAM, but the decisive power in the universe is the Spacing Guild — which regulates and provides the inter-galactic transport system, and corresponds to the banking/international trading elite of early modernity.
The Guild’s power rests on the ability of its pilots to see the future, and thus navigate at beyond-light speeds between galaxies. This ability is induced by taking the drug spice, which can only be found on Arrakis — the scene of a battle for control between the Emperor, the Harkonnen nobility, the Atreides nobility (of which the hero Paul is the ducal heir), and the indigenous Fremen people who live in the planet’s desert wastelands.
So far, so Perry Anderson: this is a straight reproduction of early modernity, in which the imperatives of commerce collide with the imperatives of feudal obligation; in which an absolutist power (the imperial Corrino family) plays the role of arbiter between a bourgeoisie (CHOAM/The Guild) and a fragmented neo-feudal aristocracy (and of course suppresses all forms of democracy). Happily for the warring elites, there is no proletariat — so any project of self-liberation has to rely on individual humans who can defy the system, from within the system.
This being sci-fi, however, there are complications. First, around the year 16,000 CE, a mass uprising against information technology has occured, leading to the destruction of all computers and the return to essentially mechanical, not digital, technologies.
Second, immediately following this, an interplanetary ecumenical council has fused all major religions into a common faith, embodied in the Orange Catholic Bible (OCB). This common faith is depicted as a mixture of already-fused humanistic religions of the Axial Age, inheriting the millenarian myths and humanistic morality of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.
Third, through a mixture of caste training and eugenics, human specialisms have evolved to fill the gaps left by digital technologies. There are genetic eunuch assassins, “Mentats” (human computers) fulfilling the function of a scientific technocracy, doctors conditioned to absolute obedience, drug-dependent space pilots and a caste of seer-sorceresses called the Bene Gesserit. The typical elite household contains one of each of these highly specialised human beings, so that traits like emotional literacy, logic, healing and fighting are concentrated into specific universe-wide castes.
Fourthly, humanity now understands ecology — and each planet has an imperial ecologist to manage the planetary system. The central narrative of Dune revolves around Paul Atreides’ attempt to recruit the indigenous Fremen, who are already engaged in a project of ecological rebalancing, into a religious jihad to destroy the Imperial system.
Finally, having abjured computers, humanity has also given up the use of nuclear weapons, and indeed ballistic and explosive weapons, so that most conflict takes the form of swordfighting, poisoning, the assassin’s knife or low velocity projectile weapons. The removal of gunpowder from the scenario (because electro-magnetic shields protect the fighter from high-velocity weapons) allows Herbert to preserve chivalric codes in a world that would (in reality) have abandoned them.
The scenario poses three questions: (a) to what extent is the system described in Dune “fascist”; (b) to what extent does the novel promote or lionise the fascist virtues of nihilism, anti-humanism, racial supremacy and violent misogyny; ( c)to what extent does it promote the Nietzschean übermensch myth, and its eugenic consequences?
First off, the social system described is not in any sense fascist. There is a liberal/humanist wing of the feudal aristocracy (the Atreides) and a fascist/antihumanist one (the Harkonnens). The liberals are the heroes and they win.
But the world of Dune is sophisticatedly pre-modern, and 21st century fascism — through the writings of Guillaume Faye and Alexander Dugin — does promote a reversal out of modernity. Thus, far right fanboys can identify not just with the Harkonnens, but with the culture of violence, with the eugenic breeding programmes, with the overt violent misogyny, and where the untermensch general population are just expendable. If you’re a modern fascist, you would like the world of Dune, so long as you were part of the corrupt elite, or one of its soldiers.
But such a reading would leave the fascists on the losing side for — despite the brutality of the world he depicts — Herbert’s most sympathetic figures are those who follow the human impulses of love, solidarity, self-sacrifice, respect for the planet and tolerance of difference. And Villeneuve’s film, obviously cognisant of the fascist fan base, doubles down on the liberal/humanistic side of the narrative: the Atreides’ moral world is modelled on that of Renaissance Europe, not the Ottomans.
So the most persuasive fascist reading of Dune has to be a deeper one- where Paul, the protagonist, is adopted as the role model of a fascist human type. He’s the product of a eugenic breeding programme (pursued over centuries by the Bene Gesserit); he combines the powers of a Mentat with those of a trained warrior and a trained Bene Gesserit (reuniting logic and “affect” as male characteristics. He can thus be read as a Nietzchean ubermensch, who dupes the Fremen into a holy war designed to place himself on the throne. In a Christ-like moment of near death, induced by a drug overdose (coming up in Part Two), he acquires the ability to see not only into the future but also the memories of billions of human beings, both alive and dead. This, to the glee of the modern fascists, is called “race consciousness”.
But there are problems with the Paul-as-fascist-hero thesis. First, the movement he creates clearly modelled on an Islamist jihad. As we now know, American fascism has no problem with jihadis like the Taliban, as long as they are attacking the “gay state” (the USA) in Kabul. But the Fremen are depicted as dark-skinned people, with an Islam-like variant of the official religion; and they practice a form of social solidarity modelled on that of mainstream Islam (your house is my house etc). In becoming their leader, Paul abandons his own white, European (in fact Greek-inspired) culture and adopts theirs. This does not map very easily onto the white ethno-nationalism, and anti-Islamism of the new far right.
Second, the “race consciousness” Paul achieves is that of the entire human species — which as the book makes clear has by now proliferated into numerous different ethnicities. And it is the combined consciousness of all past societies and ethnicities — an “ancestral consciousness” presumably including the wisdom of Africa, Asia and all indienous peoples. So while today’s fascists can borrow the phrase of “race consciousness” from Frank Herbert, he does not mean what they mean by it.
Likewise in the world of Dune, though there are numerous religious subcultures, and the elite are cynical agnostics, there is a single official religion, again heavily based on non-Christian religions. The war Paul fears — and unleashes between the ending of Dune and the start of it’s sequel Dune Messiah, killing 61 billion people — is a jihad of the poverty-stricken masses against the power of commerce and the feudal aristocracy.
Though today’s ecofascists fantasise about killing six billion people if the global south, they do so on the basis of ethnicity, religion and nationality — so again there is no legitimate straight read-off from Dune to the modern alt right.
Only at its most meta level could Dune offer support to the project of the modern far right — which is a global, ethnic civil war that ends modernity and produces vast, contintental dictatorships. In the Dune franchise — between the first and second books — the system collapses and the world is renewed by mass slaughter.
Only if you don’t care which ethnicities and nations perish, but just want to revel in the self-destruction of humanity, could you get a kick out of this as an outcome. But as Hannah Arendt once pointed out, this is the anti-humanist logic of Nazism — of people who not only did not regard their victims as human, but did not care whether they themselves lived, or indeed had ever existed.
Here again, however, there’s a problem for the “Dune is fascist” brigade. By unleashing the jihad Paul destroys himself.
In Dune Messiah he is so unhappy that he walks into the desert to die. In Children of Dune his offspring are no longer concerned with the liberation of humanity but its mere survival, as their project descends into chaos and Paul himself reappears as a penniless blind prophet. If you wanted to take the whole trilogy as a moral proverb it would be: the project of mass violence and inhumanity always fails. (Though I do think making Dune Messiah and Children of Dune would involve Warner Brothers in a whole series of pitfalls not posed by Dune itself).
What Frank Herbert wrote
Indeed, Herbert’s own description of the intent of the novel, in a postscript to Children of Dune, makes its intent clear. It was, he wrote:
“ to be a story exploring the myth of the Messiah. It was to produce another view of a human-occupied planet as an energy machine. It was to penetrate the interlocked workings of politics and economics. It was to be an examination of absolute prediction and its pitfalls. It was to have an awareness drug in it and tell what could happen through dependence on such a substance. Potable water was to be an analog for oil and for water itself… It was to be an ecological novel, then, with many overtones as well as a story about people and their human concerns with human values”.
And that’s what Dune is. Its magnificence as a book lies — like all immersive world-building novels — in the consistency of its details and the creativity of the design of the world, the prehistory and the characters in it. Villeneuve’s movie has been rightly praised for crystallising and even improving on that achievement.
In the film, as in the book, inhuman mass murderers are defeated by the self-organisation of the masses around economic and social grievances. An army strongly resembling the Waffen SS is defeated by an army strongly resembling the PLO. Women, condemned by tradition to be concubines or witches, emerge as intelligent, self-motivated agents of their own destiny. Paul himself, having achieved super-human status, begins to understand (in a series of flash-forwards) that he will be tortured and destroyed by it. In Part Two of Dune, if it follows Herbert’s plot, everything Paul does will designed to avoid unleashing the jihad, and to restore order to and justice to the late feudal system.
No doubt in response to the ambiguities of the book (and its dated attitudes to women) Villeneuve’s movie goes out of its way to emphasise everything progressive in the story. The female characters — Paul’s Fremen wife Chani and mother Jessica — come more significantly to life in the movie than in the book, and Jessica (brilliantly played by Rebecca Ferguson) emerges as both mentor and sidekick in screenwriting terms.
Meanwhile the character of Liet Kynes — a male, white-passing ecologist who instigates the plot’s central action — is cast as a black female in the movie and brought much more into the action. I don’t suppose Richard Spencer and his fascist fanboys were very pleased with that.
Ultimately this is explicitly the story of a planet destroyed by hierarchy and commerce, whose ecosystem is restored due to mass resistance. In Dune — both the novel and the movie — poor, brown people win, the elite are overthrown and the planet is saved. You may not consider it high art, but it’s not fascist.
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