The first trailer for Danny Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune was just released, and despite my skepticism that a movie adaption will ever be able to capture the themes of Frank Herbert’s books, seeing it did cause me to reflect on what makes the original series a reactionary masterpiece. I could go on about its rejection of Whig history, humanist psychology, or egalitarianism, but I want to focus on Dune’s understanding of political power and why Hoppeans should be optimistic about the future of politics.
The protagonists of Dune and its sequels are able to dominate a galactic empire to the point of theocratic totalitarianism, and they are able to do it for one simple reason: they are the sole supplier of the empires most important resource. Without Melange—the “spice”—not only would the empire fall apart, but many of its most important figures would perish. I won’t nerd out on the details; so briefly, spice is what allows for all interplanetary travel and trading. Spice also heightens the mental abilities of those who take it, with the caveat that it is highly addictive, and withdrawals are deadly. As the story progresses in the first 4 books, the power of the Atreides family grows as they continue to restrict the supply of spice until Leto ii, the “God-Emperor”, is quite literally the only person alive capable of producing it.
The principle at work here is not a complicated one: when you have an extremely scarce resource complimented by an extremely high demand whoever owns that resource can be ready to seriously cash in. News anchors are utterly enraged by the rates “price gougers” are able to charge for necessities during a hurricane; imagine what you could get if you simultaneously controlled the switch to all electricity on earth as well as the cure for a deadly disease plaguing everyone with a net worth over 1 million dollars.
Nation-states, at least democratic ones, are not set up to make money. Private firms deal in profits; states deal in power. The people who run states might have all sorts of other ends in mind, just as Jane in accounting has a different reason for going to work than Mark Cuban, but state actors are as compelled to increase their factions power as any CEO is compelled to turn a profit for the share holders. The laws of supply and demand mean the best position to be in as a supplier is to find and dominate some bottleneck in the market. So long as either organization is able to control a small supply with an exceedingly high demand, they will both be profitable in their perspective ventures.
Many a keyboard has been worn down by libertarians strategizing about how to eliminate the demand for the product nation-states are pushing—and to no avail. What they are ostensibly selling is the potential to see one’s vision for society made reality. Systems such as agorism which rely on convincing everyone to just stop caring about the state are doomed to fail. Many people live unfulfilling lives and getting your act together requires a far lower time preference than berating your Facebook friends with moral grandstanding. There’s an often-cited counterexample that might seem like this strategy working: the declining working-class support for Marxism brought on in part by the increased standard of living in the west. Afterall, the workers don’t need to fight a violent revolution in the streets when they can afford to crack open a six pack in front of their flatscreen at home; but, no one would contend that Marxism and its bastard spawn have filed for bankruptcy, they’ve simply revamped their marketing strategy and now every non-binary lesbian is singing the praises of Che Guevara. You’re not going to beat the God-Emperor by giving up the spice. We’ve already established the demand is too high, and for the foreseeable future it will continue to be high. People like the prospect of the world looking how they want it to (or they at least like the feeling that they’re fighting for the good guys), and if something is desired by enough people there is always an incentive for someone else to provide it.
Demand is off the table, but what about supply? History is pretty clear about what people are willing to do to see their ideology win. Luckily, the market is always seeking to provide less costly alternatives. If there’s one thing that always shakes up the fortune 500 its technological innovation. Much to the surprise of your average Donahue fan, Xerox did not become an unstoppable monopoly. The horse and buggy cartel does not run the world. Being the primary supplier of printing supplies is nice, but its not the death grip it once was when printers can be bypassed by anyone with a smartphone and a reliable wifi connection. We’re not going to beat the state, or the cathedral more broadly, by mass producing Human Action. We’re going to win because the galaxy is a pretty big place, and every day people are finding different deposits of spice to mine. Social media is currently causing Brian Stelter to spend his nights weeping in the fetal position because suddenly an army of anime avatars has more street cred than “the most trusted name in news.”
I don’t mean to argue that we’re just 3 Doki Doki Literature Club memes away from Ancapistan. My point is that the idea of a monopoly is a shaky one. Even where an institution is free of actual competitors it is still subject to potential ones. it is undeniable that the current channels the cathedral, and by extension the state, uses to maintain its authority over culture are slowly being eroded as technology forces open the bottlenecks. The corporate press and the universities have long served as the institutional monopolies on allowable opinions. If it doesn’t come out of Harvard then its not credible, and if it wasn’t found on Arrakis then it ain’t spice. But, as market forces continue to boost the supply of centres for gaining knowledge the revisionist schools will be better able to compete. Xerox may still be Xerox, but the entire point of a covenant community is that it is not tasked with imposing its culture and beliefs on the entirety of the world. Alternative firms are doing just fine, even if they supply a smaller customer base than Walmart.
If you’ve read Dune you already know what comes after the fall of the God-Emperor: a fractioning of the empire into scattered clusters of independent factions. With alternative channels for dialogue being created we are likewise seeing political discourse become increasingly hostile. The American civil war ended in the north subjugating the south, but that doesn’t mean peaceful dissolution of the empire is impossible. I don’t expect to see the European Union mount an amphibious assault on Britain any time soon. Secession may sometimes be violent, but this is a bug not a feature. As technology produces more and more alternative sources for forming ones worldview, we can expect that niche ideologies will be better catered to in the same way that low barriers to entry in the market allow for firms that target specialized customer bases to more easily arise. Likewise, as individuals consume education and media that is more diverse the common ground which currently maintains the status quo will cease to exist. Much of the Trump and Biden bases are already so ideologically opposed that there is hardly even a pretence of sincere dialogue between them, this is despite both groups spending 12 years in the same public schools being trained in the same ideology only to grow up and watch the same shows on Netflix and go to the same Hollywood blockbusters. As these shared cultural spaces continue to be subverted by lower production costs, the schisms will only widen.
Perhaps the greatest unintended consequence of the Corona lockdowns is that parents everywhere are seeing just how easy the internet has made homeschooling in terms of finding educational programs, as well as organizing and communicating with others in the homeschooling community. Cameras, lighting, and editing software becomes cheaper by the day, and sites like YouTube have made distribution free. Every passing moment marks the widening of the bottlenecks that the cathedral has relied upon to keep supply restricted and competition low. Let the spice flow freely and the God-Emperor is rendered powerless. As technology makes alternatives to government schools, universities, and corporate media more viable, the cathedral will likewise fall.
- Dwight Spelvin