How to Overthrow an Empire – and Replace It with Your Own

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Peter Turchin explains how to overthrow an empire and replace it with your own — using Dune as his example:

Paul’s enemies are enormously powerful and wealthy. He can’t defeat them by himself (even helped by his mother). His individual power is not enough; he needs others — thousands, ultimately millions of others — to succeed in his quest. In short, he has to acquire social power.

The first decision fork he comes to is right after the disaster strikes, and the House Atreides is all but destroyed. Should he become an urban guerilla, by organizing and leading an uprising in Arrakeen and Cartag? There are a lot of advantages to this course of action. It is extremely difficult to winkle out urban guerillas from the population that supports them, even if passively.

The other route is to become a desert warrior, which means recruiting the Fremen to your cause. So, which road to take?

Ibn Khaldun says that you should put your money on the Fremen, and Cliodynamics concurs.

Who is, or rather was, Ibn Khladun? This great Arab historian and sociologist was born in Tunis in 1332 and died in Egypt in 1406. He served as ambassador, prime minister, and supreme justice in various North African states, and traveled from Spain to Middle East. He was imprisoned by rulers, and he led an uprising of desert Fremen against those rulers.

Maghreb Satellite

Satellite view of Northwest Africa: If you wrap this landscape around a ball, you will get Arrakis.

Oops, I mean, Berbers, not Fremen. But it’s the same thing, so we should listen closely to his advice.
One of the most important concepts in Ibn Khaldun’s theory of history was asabiya, the social glue that binds individuals into cohesive social groups. Groups wielding greater asabiya impose their will on (if not defeat outright) groups possessing lesser asabiya. But how do groups acquire asabiya and why do they lose it?

Ibn Khaldun argued that the Desert was the crucible of asabiya. Only groups that have high asabiya can survive and thrive in this harsh environment. In contrast, in the urban civilization asabiya is gradually degraded, until they lose their ability for concerted collective action.

This is why Ibn Khaldun says, go to the desert. (This is what he himself did — when he decided to rebel against one of the rulers of North African states, he went into the desert and organized a Berber uprising.)

The Fremen live in a very harsh environment. What’s most important is not the harsh physical environment, but the harsh social environment. Before the Atreides acquired Arrakis, it was brutally governed by the Harkonnens, who “hunted the Fremen like animals.” The Harkonnen goal was to exterminate the Fremen. Instead what happened was that they imposed a selection regime under which only the toughest, most capable, and most cohesive Fremen tribes survived. The Harkonnens also inadvertently imposed a regime of shared pain and suffering that, as recent research shows, leads to social ‘fusion.’

To cut the long story short, the Fremen on Arrakis evolved into tough, even fanatical warriors. Given some additional training they are quite capable of matching, and even surpassing the dreaded Sardaukar. The Fremen have a lot of asabiya.

But there is a problem for Paul. While tribal-level asabiya is a great social glue, making each tribe an effective war machine, Paul needs to unify all desert tribes to defeat Shaddam and the Harkonnens. In order to bind the Fremen into a single force, tribal asabiya is not enough. Another kind of social glue is necessary.
Ibn Khaldun says (and Cliodynamics concurs) that Paul Muad’Dib needs religion. It is religion that has the potential to weld disparate tribes (and more generally, ethnic groups) into a cohesive force. Perhaps the most famous example is the rise of Islam, when Prophet Muhammad united the tribes of Arab Bedouins, which his successors lead to conquests from Spain in the West to what is now western China in the East.

Fortunately for Paul, the Bene Gesserit missionaries have already prepared the ground by planting among the Fremen prophecies of a messiah to come. Somewhat reluctantly, Paul assumes the role of the Mahdi (the prophet) in the new religion, which unleashes the Fremen Jihad across the universe.

The final ingredient that’s needed is a charismatic leader. This is the easiest, because he is, as I said before, a pretty awesome human being. Interestingly enough, although Frank Herbert devotes a lot of attention to how wonderful Paul is as a fighter, historically speaking, a great martial capability is not a particularly important requirement for a successful leader. Muhammad, for example, was not an accomplished martial artist.

What is more important is charisma, ability to fire up followers. Equally important is just plain luck. It is critical for the potential leader to win the first two or three engagements. Especially if he is a religious leader. Victory validates his claim to divine support.

During World War I the British officer T. E. Lawrence organized Arab irregular troops and led them in guerrilla operations against the Ottoman Empire.

During World War I the British officer T. E. Lawrence organized Arab irregular troops and led them in guerrilla operations against the Ottoman Empire.

It is also important that the leader comes from outside the social system. It is extremely difficult for one of the tribal leaders to unify the tribes by imposing himself as an overarching authority. The other tribal leaders are liable to say: why you and not me? This quickly leads to bickering and things falling apart. This is why great unifiers, such as Muhammad, Chinggis Khan, and Paul Muad’Dib, were relative outsiders (but at the same time, they were attuned to the culture of the people they ended up leading).


  1. Right Said Fred says:

    It also helps if the leader is a good strategist. Hitler was ultimately a bad strategists, dooming his united people.

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