Life without a state is dominated by custom

Saturday, March 2nd, 2024

Dune (Movie Tie-In) by Frank HerbertMark Koyama notes that his most downloaded academic paper on SSRN is a yet to be published book chapter on the political economy of Frank Herbert’s Dune:

We should first ask: do fictional universes need a political economy that makes sense? Absolutely not. But to have lasting value, I think it helps that they at least ask important political economy questions.

An episode of the Rest is History, Romans in Space: Star Wars, Dune and Beyond touch on these issues. Holland and Sandbrook note that the original Star Wars trilogy were given a patina of sophistication and historical depth by references to the “old republic” and the “senate”. Star Wars didn’t have a coherent political economy, but these hints gave viewers enough material to reconstruct their own imaginary histories. The problem with the prequel trilogy (the dire Disney remakes have different problems) is that they filled in the backstory and they did so in a particularly flat and inept way.


Paul Atreides is the quintessential “great man”. One of what the 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle called

“…the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterners, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain….”


The intellectual depth of Dune as a novel comes from Herbert asking: what happens to a society that gets its great man or hero? Herbert’s answer is

“No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero”

This is why David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation fails. In that adaption Paul really is the promised one: his victory makes it rain on Arrakis. There is no sense of the tragedy that inevitably accompanies a fulfilled prophecy.

So why does Paul fail? I would argue that he inevitably fails because he cannot overcome fundamental institutional and geopolitical constraints that he confronts. While this is, of course, the message of Dune Messiah, more can be said about these institutional constraints.

The political economy of the galactic empire is a form of what Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast term “limited access orders”. Limited access orders are a form of government that achieve a measure of peace and society order through the creation of economic rents for elites.


Like oil riches, spice produces a resource curse. It leads to the concentration of autocratic power both on the planet and in the galaxy at large. While Harkonnen rule is clearly the most oppressive, the Atreides also rule the planet in an authoritarian manner. The empire Paul conquerers following his victory at the end of the first novel is at least as oppressive and even more violent than the previous Corrino empire.

In Herbert’s novels, history follows cyclical laws which humans can bend but not overcome. The Fremen freedom fights are destined to become invader and oppressors of other planets. Ecological and geographic factors weigh heavily as does Herbert’s Jungian understand of human psychology and myth. Together this saves the novel from being pure escapism.


As I note in my article, we can view the Harkonnens and the Fremen as representing two polar forms of organization. The Harkonnen represent the brutal leviathan state. They are associated with slavery, torture, and oppression. Through history despotisms, such as that of the Harkonnen’s, have been a common though extreme form of government.

In contrast, the Fremen represent a society without a state. Far from being a libertarian utopia, however, life without a state is dominated by custom (“water debt”, “the bond of water” etc.). And Fremen customs are harsh and unforgiving as the desert of Arrakis.

The Atreides, particularly Duke Leto, offer a possible middle ground. I think of this as roughly corresponding to Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson call “the narrow corridor” between rule by society and rule by the state.


In Dune Messiah, however, and in the other sequels, this sense of hope is shattered. The liberation offered by Paul results in a new and insidious theocratic despotism.

This can explain why Dune is so popular whereas the sequels that Herbert wrote have a much smaller and more niche following. The former provides a conventional heoric narrative. In the latter, structural and societal forces dominate, and the consequences of Paul’s heroic quest are transitory or malign.


  1. Bruce says:

    Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven in Oath of Fealty wanted a society that favored custom over law.

    When I read Frank Herbert, I keep seeing madly romantic premises — a sentient star that likes S+M, a Captain from Castile in space, a spy trying to overthrow a hive of human insects — crammed into the 1950′s trope of smart nervous professionals doing something dangerous and complicated while terrified of their genius boss.

  2. Jim says:

    Villeneuve’s casting is a crime against humanity.

  3. Longarch says:

    “This is why David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation fails. In that adaption Paul really is the promised one: his victory makes it rain on Arrakis. There is no sense of the tragedy that inevitably accompanies a fulfilled prophecy.”

    Lynch’s adaptation was trying to cover a lot of ground in a limited amount of time. Although Paul did not make it rain in the book as he did in Lynch’s movie, the Atreides family really did terraform Arrakis — it just took them a long time, and Lynch did not want to try to convey that length of time.

    I would argue that Paul was indeed a chosen one, but the nature of a “chosen one” is more vague than Koyama wants to believe. Power is not the same as ethical sophistication or moral justification.

  4. McChuck says:

    Dune is Lawrence of Arabia in space.

  5. Gwern says:

    “…it just took them a long time, and Lynch did not want to try to convey that length of time.”

    That’s not the problem. One could just handwave it with a time-skip or invoke future tech to deal with the plausibility problem of terraforming happening that fast. The “tragedy” referred to is that the Fremen culture was the result of their environment.

    So greening Arrakis means, in addition to destroying the supply of spice, the inevitable and predictable destruction of the Fremen culture. In Dune Messiah, the Fremen have become corrupt greedy venal urbanized theocrats ruling their new empire, and by the time of God Emperor of Dune, the success of the terraforming has reduced them to literally “museum Fremens” LARPing their Dune ancestors for tourists.

    Simply showing some rain, as if it were an unalloyed good, misses half the story.

  6. Phileas Frogg says:

    Medieval Europe was the domination of the State by Custom and Society, Modern Europe is the domination of Custom and Society by the State; early and contemporary America followed an identical trajectory over a much shorter span, and the Internet will soon follow on an even shorter timeline.

    In each instance the formal overcomes the informal, until it overcomes itself.

    The greatest enemy of a successful State, is the success of the State.

  7. Longarch says:

    “Simply showing some rain, as if it were an unalloyed good, misses half the story.”

    I had missed that point. Thanks for explaining. I stand corrected.

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