K. Williams: Imperialism & Globalization in DUNE

Moderators: D Pope, SandRider

K. Williams: Imperialism & Globalization in DUNE

Postby SandRider » Fri Apr 30, 2010 10:02 pm


The war in Iraq has captivated so many, both for and against, not because of its novelty, but because it resonates so strongly with a long history of armed conflicts which have been plugged into archetypal myths for the passionate pursuit of nationalistic goals. Kevin Williams' "Imperialism & Globalization: Lessons from Frank Herbert's Dune" plugs this loaded scenario into the reflexive mythology of Herbert's imperial epic. Offering insights into the problems of inside and outside for an expansionist government with pretensions of eliminating the outside and establishing all known territories within a liberal, capitalist domain, Williams suggests that the struggle to transcend the hypocrisy of coerced freedom may require just that -- the transcendence that comes after efforts to selectively secure the survival of a narrowly defined freedom are undermined and collapse under the burden of their own efforts.

Imperialism & Globalization: Lessons from Frank Herbert's Dune

Kevin Williams

The Desert(ed) Sands of Democracy

We have succumbed to mindless ritual, and seductive ceremony, placed faith in those who crush dissent, enrich themselves with power, commit atrocity all in the name of righteousness, all in the name of Muad'Dib [read: in the name of democracy]. We have fouled the nest, and it is killing us....All humans make mistakes, and all leaders are but human.

The Golden Path

<1> These are the words of The Preacher (a character in Frank Herbert's Children of Dune who is simultaneously the metaphorical reincarnation of the fallen prophet, Muad'Dib, and the self-exiled Emperor, Paul Atreides) as he addresses the masses enslaved by their devotion to his messianic Empire. These words, culled from the pages of science fiction, are more than mere exposition from Herbert's narrative, they point toward several important conditions facing the political world today. These conditions concern certain failures of democracy and effects of globalization spawned, in part, by an intensification of imperialist expansion in the name of democracy.

<2> The policy of extending rule and/or influence over another country or entity (including a nation's own people) via political, military or other means of power are indicators of imperialism. Is this not the case of Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) in which the United States engaged Iraq in war without direct provocation, and furthermore is working to impose (i.e., export) democracy on Iraq? Such an imposition negates democracy because it deprives the Iraqis of their voice (even if the overthrown government was despotic). Moreover, the Iraqis, now "liberated," are not extended the same rights as are the conquerors, and thus while freed from one regime are not free, as they live under another regime imposed over them. Thus, the instigation of democracy in this case is imperialist and mimetic: It is imperialist because it imposes the rule of another, mimetic because the "democracy" imposed, like any mirror, reflects a reversed and distorted image.

<3> Furthermore, Lenin wrote a book in 1916, Imperialism, the Highest Form of Capitalism, which linked imperialist expansion to capitalist economic theory (as practiced in modern democratic societies). Lenin predicted an imperial manifestation of power through the exploitation of workers in third-world nations -- a condition we see all too clearly today (Ingersol and Matthews, 161-2). Thus, democracy's free-market globalization is itself a form of imperialism.

<4> It seems, then, that imperialist globalization walks hand in hand with free market capitalism, and that democracies are quite capable of inflicting democracy on non-democratic societies (disallowing the sovereignty of another voice, the very negation of democracy itself). But how is such imperialism constituted? And what, if anything, can be done to remedy the pathologies of imperialism and democracy, nationalism and globalization? [1]

<5> This movement toward imperialistic globalization, in the name of democracy, suggests that there is a need for tracing the cultural morphologies of democracy, imperialism and globalization. It suggests as well the cultivation of an enlightened leadership and an emancipated, non-cynical population. But how to achieve such goals? Frank Herbert's science fiction saga, The Dune Chronicles, offers insight into this problematic.

<6> Herbert's Dune novels suggest that the knowledge of cultural morphologies (e.g., democracy) can be understood by tracing their discursive limits, and raising the consciousness of the populace to recognize the power inherent in signs and symbols used by politicians to obscure these limits. He suggests further that imperialism can be overcome by the cultivation of an emancipated populace that has little need for a hierarchical leadership, only an enlightened leadership (lightened of the load of thinking for others). Such emancipation appears when people resist and transcend the need and desire to place leaders and/or systems above themselves. Such a society would vanquish sycophants, mindless ritual, dogma, unthinking action, and hero worship.

<7> But how does one implement such idealistic goals? Indeed, such goals assume there is a "good life," or "right way of living," and there is "enlightenment" to be found. More importantly, these goals potentially lead one to choose a people, nation or ideology over another thus producing the very conditions of imperialism that is being questioned. Is there a way out of this maze?

<8> Herbert's vision, as presented in The Golden Path:

To make a world where human kind can make its own future from moment to moment, free from one man's vision [fascism, imperialism, and the imposition of one nation's rule over another]. Free from the perversion of the prophets words [the proclamations of political pundits, technocrats, and the convoluted wording of legalisms and doctrine]. And free of future pre-determined [by formal constitution, laws that do not protect the populace but serve only the interests of those in power, and belief that things and ideas that worked in the past will continue to work in the future].
These ideas may not be completely original to Herbert, but by turning to popular writing he makes them accessible to a vast audience.
A Function of Fiction

<9> Viewing and transcending the intertwined problematic of democratic-imperialism (a paradox) and globalization (as free market exploitation) is a rather difficult task: Herbert turns to fiction to provide the reader with analogy and allegory: In Dune a Feudal division of planetary systems, which may be seen as representing nations, is laid out unambiguously for inspection. The world is composed of an Emperor (ruler of the known universe), a congress of major and minor Houses (with various capital holdings and political influence), the Spacing Guild (which holds a monopoly on interstellar travel), and the Bene Gesserit (who represent the alliance of politics and religion).

<10> Book one, Dune, outlines the precarious balance of power in a capitalist, imperialist and globalized universe: The Emperor and The Baron Harkonnen overthrow Duke Leo (who controls the production and distribution of the spice melange. Melange is an analogue for oil. And like oil, the spice is a commodity over which people will wage war). The Duke was becoming more popular than the Emperor -- and it is unwise to become more popular than the boss. Once the Duke is murdered his son Paul, now in exile and downtrodden, gains the trust of the indigenous people of planet Arrakis (the only planet where spice is harvested).

<11> Paul eventually overthrows the Emperor and places himself on the Imperial throne. Following Paul's ascent, there is a twelve-year Jihad waged in his name. At the end of this war billions have been killed on thousands of planets. The Empire has reached out its right arm (globalization) and controls the universe. In wake of this Jihad, however, Paul finds a new but unwanted Empire filled with hypocrites and sycophants, mindless adherence to dogma and ritual.

<12> A major theme in The Dune Chronicles is, then, a classic lesson in power politics: Every dynasty bears within it the seeds of its own decline. As the downtrodden become victors they impose their manner of rule thus establishing a new oppressive regime. Weakened by war-weary people, monolithic rule, naïve adherence to tradition, cynical lack of participation, and the loss of the qualities of leadership, Paul's Empire decays under its own pretense. By the end of book two, Dune Messiah, it is apparent that Paul's Empire is no better than the previous. From the moment Paul-Muad'Dib realizes that his Empire is corrupt only the heretics and anarchists of Muad'Dib's religious Empire have any chance of emancipation and liberation. The cynics -- who act in accordance with the orthodoxy, even if they disagree with its tenants (sloterdijk) -- are doomed to the eternal recurrence of the same (Nietzsche). This is the case for the rulers as well as the ruled.

Patterns and Pathologies

<13> There appears, then, the adumbration of a pattern of social discord, a cultural morphology become pathological, a recurring trap in which social groups can be caught. This pattern has been outlined by Bateson who notes:

St. Paul's ambition, and the ambition of the downtrodden, is always to get on the side of the imperialists -- to become middle class imperialists themselves -- and it is doubtful whether creating more members of the civilization which we are here criticizing is a solution to the problem. (432)
Indeed, Paul-Muad'Dib Atreides, both Messiah and Emperor shared St. Paul's destiny. For St. Paul, the adoption of a religion that accepted Jews and Gentiles meant founding a church where he clarified his teachings, rebuked the Corinthians for erroneous practices, and instructed them in Christian living (the establishment of imperialist Christianity -- quite antithetical to the teachings of Christ). He ultimately opposed any other teachings than Christianity. This led to open conflict, and the rejection of St. Paul's apostolic authority by many (see Corinthians 1:2). Likewise, the restoration of House Atreides as both Imperial seat and church led to a similar situation, with the exception that Paul-Muad'Dib Atreides played the roles of Jesus (messiah), then Emperor (King of Kings), then martyr (he gives himself to fate), and finally heretic (in which state he finds emancipation).
<14> The cultural morphology that appears in St. Paul and the Corinthians, and in Dune, also appears in The U.S. Colonies and England, Israel and Palestine, the United States and Iraq. Indeed, many of the problems addressed in Dune are problems facing the world today ("Walking and Talking with John Harrison"). Considering for the moment only global imperialism, a condition Bateson suggests is brought about in democracies and dictatorships alike in the name of, memory of, or fear of being oppressed or downtrodden states, colonies, peoples and/or tribes (432) -- the oppressed desire power only to find that once obtained such power must be maintained (often through oppression).

<15> So long as people cling to the belief that what worked in the past will continue to work in the future (in spite of the fact that attempts to end nationalistic wars and terrorism have not worked), and so long as people accept the imperialist expansion of "democracy," social change and civil resistance to domination seem unlikely. New patterns of thought, word and deed appear to be in order. Thus, Herbert says with Heisenbergian overtones in his essay, Listening with the Left Hand:

While we strive for a one-system view of this process [the inevitability of change], we are at the same time influenced by it and influence it. We peer myopically at it through screens of 'consensus reality,' which is a summation of the most popular beliefs of our time. Out of habit/illusion/conservatism, we grapple for something that changes as we touch it. (12)
The "we" Herbert postulates is a thought-experiment in which he considers any group of the species as a single organism, and as an organism it can become neurotic or even psychotic (Listening with the Left Hand, 15): "It's not that all of us are mad (one plus one plus one, etc.) but that all-of-us-together can be mad" (Herbert, Listening with the Left Hand, 16). Take for example the wild sexuality of combat troops (see N.I.M. Walter's, The Sexual Cycle of Human Warfare), the fierce riots of demonstrators (e.g., at meetings of the IMF and World Bank), the rush to raise flags in times of National crisis (e.g., in the U.S. after 9-11), or the fights and killings over the outcome of sporting events (e.g., as in the May 10 soccer tragedy in Ghana).
<16> The Dune Chronicles suggest that such wild-madness stems from social conditions that pit organisms against organisms. There is, Herbert says, a tendency to forget that humans evolved within -- as a part of -- an ecosystem (Listening with the Left Hand, 38). Moreover, it is tempting to forget that the most dangerous organism to another is often its own kind:

"I enjoy watching the flights of birds on Arrakis," the banker said..."All of our birds are carrion-eaters, and many exist without water, having become blood drinkers..."

"Do you mean, sir, that these birds are cannibals?" [Paul asked]

"That's an odd question..." the banker said. "I merely said the birds drink blood. It doesn't have to be the blood of their own kind, does it?"

"It was not an odd question," Paul said... "Most educated people know that the worst potential competition for any young organism can come from its own kind." He deliberately forked a bite of food from his companion's plate, ate it. "They are eating from the same bowl. They have the same basic requirements" (Dune, 134).

To cultivate an enlightened leadership, reap the rewards of democracy, and banish the inherent imperialism of corporate capitalism and its effects on globalization, each and every member of the population do well to remember that humans are a product of an ecosystem. As such they are in competition for the same resources. However, to be civilized, human and humane implies that animalistic behavior is overcome. (Indeed, the constitution of the fully human is a major theme in Dune.) The conscious ability to act for the good of the species is an option. If such an option is chosen, the cycle of downtrodden-dominator explicated in Dune, and played out on earth, may be broken.
<17> Indeed, it is important to note that this cycle shows itself in human history as well as in Herbert's fiction: The Greeks and the Persians, called by some the greatest powers of the their time, were overthrown by the Arabs, and they, in turn, were overcome by the Berbers and Turks (Hourani). Any judgment passed regarding the quality of one culture over another is difficult to assess because the values used to make such determinations are themselves are cultural products. Thus, acting for the good of the species is not as easy as it sounds.

<18> The recognition that judgments are cultural productions implies that one cannot escape the momentum of the downtrodden-domination polarity by attacking or backing one side or the other. How would one choose a side? This is, of course, the classic, "are you a freedom fighter or Terrorist debate." The answer depends on whose side you are on. Indeed, no simple remedy can be achieved by backing the Romans against the Palestinians or vice versa (Bateson, 432). Consider:

Both Pakistan and India could be equally right and equally wrong. This applies also to Democrats and Republicans, to Left and Right, to Israel and the United Arab Republic, to Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics. (Herbert, Listening with the Left Hand, 42).
The problems concerning cultural morphologies that appear pathological, such as recent failures of democracy, increasing imperialism, and exploitive globalization may not, then, be dealt with by splitting binaries or picking sides. They may be dealt with, however, in a manner which rejects selecting one team over another. Such a method of understanding would require tracing the limits of cultural forms, and then adhering to these limits.
<19> What is suggested in, book three, Children of Dune is that one need not choose sides, but one must make a choice and take action. In other words, non-action is action in support of the status quo, as Virilio suggests. If cynicism is to be overcome, participation is necessary. If democracy is to be proclaimed, people must live within its limits, or they are not living a democratic life.

The Golden Path

<20> In order to have a democracy, one must have a voice. In order to be politically active, one must make choices. The choice made by Leto II, in Children of Dune, and expanded upon in book four, God Emperor of Dune, is called the Golden Path. The Golden Path is one along which humanity as a whole ultimately transcends nationalist, imperialist rule and the hypocritical and/or cynical adherence to government. Leto II cultivates this society, as an imperial leader, by becoming the greatest predator ever known. While this seems at first glance disturbing, the logic is quite simple. The predator weeds out the weak and the sickly (those incapable of participation). An intelligent predator takes care of its prey. It nourishes them so that they will nourish her. The Golden Path is thus an enforced tranquility, "Leto's Peace," that oppresses humankind by depriving them of the need to think. This is done to the point of developing in them the psychic muscles required to live free of tyrannical oppression, and think for themselves after Leto's death (Herbert, God Emperor of Dune, 22-5; 73-5). Leto is the proverbial last Emperor.

<21> Those who survive the Golden Path have the courage to follow any chosen path (keeping in mind that one is always free to make another choice): If one is to proclaim democracy, for example, the principles, values and ideals of democracy must be maintained.

<22>Deconstruction provides us with a way to trace these cultural forms. As metaphysics of presence are explicated as communicative acts, and tacit assumptions made in specific statements cancel each other out, it becomes possible to trace the limits of a political ideology (e.g., democracy) [2]. A so-enlightened leadership would not have to govern the populace, but remind the populace of discursive limits (which are, as Foucault has shown, not fixed but flexible).

<23> For example, in a democracy all persons have a free and equal right to participate in an organization, nation, or other group. Anytime that all members are not given the right to a voice, or their voice is given to another, we have modified our attention and shifted into another domain (as in the case of U.S. presidential and congressional politics which is, for practical purposes, a hybrid form of governance -- a democratic-republic).

<24> Take for another example a case in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The U.S. military (after imposing "democracy") went from house to house confiscating guns. Such an act runs contrary to the ideals of the Second Amendment which gives all persons the right to possess fire-arms. The imperialist "democracy" does not, in this case, extend the same rights to the newly created "democracy." Neither parties practice democracy.

<25> By tracing the contours of these morphologies perhaps we can explicate not only some ills of democracy (and other perceived problems) but plausible remedies as well.

<26> For one thing, democratic imperialism is obscured by a rhetoric of freedom, a mythology of the frontier, and an ideology of free market capitalism. This capitalist ideology allows people, governments and corporations to exploit persons, goods, services and ideas without regard for ecological balance and understanding (we trade completely viable and useful things for no-things, i.e., symbolic money, what has of itself little to no use-value separate from its exchange-value). This frontier mythology is pushing us off our own planet (and we lack the technology to take us to the "final frontier"). This rhetoric of freedom allows people to take-for-granted a rather tenuous freedom (as Bateson notes [432], freedom can generally be reduced to having certain legal rights and advantages -- one is not free in an absolute sense). The result: A cult of victim-hood, rituals of manifest brutality, the global exploitation of persons, goods, services and ideas, and the pollution of our home world.

<27> For another, imperialism demonstrates a pattern in which the downtrodden, once placed in power, may become themselves imperialists. Imperialist civilization, as noted above, is thus smoothed over by the lingering memories of being oppressed. This memory carries with it the seeds of fear, blame and guilt, lest the Empire fall, or the imperialists recognize that they have become oppressors. Fear, blame and guilt may be thought of in terms of projection (Bateson, 442): A people act on common sense (which may be more accurately described as communal sense) in order to preserve their immediate interests. Later they find such short-term, reactionary thinking creates a mess (e.g., the strike-counterstrike mentality seen daily in the Middle East, the guerilla wars that wage for years as in Colombia and Northern Ireland). The situation appears to be "unfair." Fear, blame and guilt, then, can be used as cultural morphologies in the maintenance of the status quo, and destruction of dissent. For example, fear ("what if we are targeted for terrorism?"), guilt ("can't we help those poor people over there?"), imperialism ("our way of governance is best for everybody"), corporate globalization ("we can save money by using cheap foreign labor"), technocracy, pundits and hero-worship ("surely the experts know better than I"), and the relinquishing of democracy to a democratic-republic form of governance (again, "surely others must know better").

<28> Within any orthodoxy (religious, political or otherwise) the power-struggle of politics cannot be avoided (Truths of Dune, 7). The rigid observance of values permeates education and discipline. Leaders of an orthodox, conservative body inevitably face a daunting question: succumb to opportunism in order to maintain rule (as in selling copies of Bush's infamous 9-11 Air Force One photo), or sacrifice themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethos (Jimmy Carter's Presidency comes to mind) (Truths of Dune, 7). Thus, from The Truths of Dune: "Good government never depends on laws, but upon the personal qualities of those who govern" (7). And, Herbert notes:

In the universe thus described [one in which democracy fails to live up to its own values, free market capitalism spreads like a cancer across the globe, and yesterdays downtrodden become tomorrow's imperialists], we are destined forever to find ourselves shocked to awareness on paths that we do not recognize, in places where we do not want to be, in a universe that displays no concern over our distress and that may have no center capable of noticing us. God-as-an-absolute stays beyond any demands we can articulate. The old patterns of thinking, patched together out of primitive communications attempts, continue to hamstring us (Frank Herbert, Listening with the Left Hand, 46).
To watch the World Trade Center buildings fall (people burned and crushed within); to see the bloodied witnesses to a suicide bombing (terror and hatred in their eyes); to view photos of bodies fallen in the wake of war (laying dead and mangled on battle grounds); or even to contemplate the figures broken in Picasso's Guernica (stretched, fragmented and distorted across the canvas), is to confront expressions of the precarious conditions facing civilization today, conditions that find many persons in places they do not want to be, and some who wish to inflict their heaven or hell on others, conditions that often seem cold and alien to the oppressor and oppressed alike, conditions that fail to live up to democracy's ideals, values and laws of a humane society.
<29> By committing acts of mindless ritual and seductive ceremony, placing faith in those who crush dissent, enrich themselves with power, commit atrocity in the name of righteousness, and in the name of democracy, perhaps democracy has fouled its own nest. Humans do indeed make mistakes, and all leaders are but human. But beyond the Golden Path -- after the last Emperor has abdicated the throne -- the gates of delirium can close and the doors of perception open.


[1] The term pathology is used in this essay to designate the process of understanding dis-ease in a cultural, metaphorical and discursive sense within an institutional field, and as a socio-cultural condition that is simultaneously enhanced and despised by a socio-cultural group. Such a disease or cultural pathology would be, in Sloterdijk's words, cynical. That is, a public, to a large extent, would recognize the existence of a problem (e.g., not participating in the electorate processes), but does little if anything about it. People don't vote, but continue to complain. [^]

[2] For a simple and practical example of the deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence, consider the following statements taken from a popular radio psychology call-in program. A woman, who in her first breath proclaims herself Christian, calls the psychologist. She says that she does not want to take in her husband's son from a previous marriage because he is a trouble maker, probably involved with drugs, and may upset the balance of her life with her husband and their children. Her statements, made in the name of raising "a good Christian family" deconstruct on the grounds that a Christian would turn the other cheek to his problems, would not throw stones but recognize her own misgivings, and would take in, nurture and bless the downtrodden. In other words, her statements cancel out the principles (or metaphysics) of Christianity. [^]

Works Cited

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1991.

Ingersoll, David, and Matthews, Richard. The Philosophical Roots of Modern Ideology: Liberalism, Communism, Fascism. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1991.

"The Golden Path." Dir. Greg Yaitanes. Children of Dune. DVD. Artisan Entertainment, 2003.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. New York: Ace/Berkley, 1999, c1965.

Herbert, Frank. Dune Messiah. New York: Ace/Berkley, 1999, c1969.

Herbert, Frank. Children of Dune. New York: Ace/Berkley, 1999, c1976.

Herbert, Frank. God Emperor of Dune. New York: Ace/Berkley, 1999, c1981.

Herbert, Frank. "Listening to the Left Hand." Harper's Magazine, 1973 <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Academy/7711/mt-lefthand.html>.

Nietzsche, Fredrick. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Penguin, 1954.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Trans. Michael Eldred. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

"The Truths of Dune." Free Space. <http://www.geocities.com/Paris/6790/truth.html> (24 September 1998).

"Walking and Talking with John Harrison." Children of Dune. DVD. Artisan Entertainment 2003.
User avatar
Judge of the Change
Posts: 781
Joined: Sun Oct 05, 2008 9:00 pm
Location: on the worm

Return to Dune Theses, Dissertations & Research Papers

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest