Last week I wrote about Frank Herbert’s political ideas as expressed in his magnificent Dune Chronicles. It was suggested to me that these works also contain an insight into economics that is worth investigating. So I investigated. And I came to the conclusion – aided in no small part by finishing God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and most of Chapterhouse: Dune – isn’t interested in economics nearly as much as he is in politics. Herbert is investigating that failing in the human heart that is to society as the law of entropy is to physics, and his particular interest is the shaping of society by superhuman forces, not the everyday pressures of normal existence. The one major economic concern he explores is the bizarre and unhealthy political pressures that a single-commodity economy creates.
“The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.” So said Paul-Muad’dib Atreides of the geriatric spice mélange, for centuries found only as a byproduct of the great sandworms of Arrakis. The spice is, for one reason or another, essential to just about everybody. For most people, it is simply a means of extending life, for a person who partakes of spice on a regular basis will live for centuries. For those with the proper genotype and/or training, it is an awareness-spectrum narcotic that enables one to muck about with higher dimensions. For this latter reason it is also the foundation of interstellar travel, as the Spacing Guild uses it to see dimly into the future in order to guide their Heighliners through foldspace. In any case, once you are addicted to mélange, you must never go without, as the withdrawal symptoms can easily lead to death, especially for one who has extended his life beyond the normal allotment by using mélange.
It can easily be imagined how a commodity with so many applications that is so vital to so many would be immensely valuable, even if it were easy to get. But acquiring mélange is a dangerous process that involves risking some of the most hostile environments known to man. And that’s not even mentioning the worms, who always patrol spice sands and will attack any spice harvester without fail. Harvesting spice is an exercise of getting in and getting out with as much as you can carry before the worm comes.
In Dune, water and mélange are self-conscious metaphors for oil. Herbert makes no bones about this, and says as much in the forward to Heretics of Dune, published 1984. It is not only the utility of mélange, but its location in a desert environment inhabited by a people with strong Islamic roots that solidifies this metaphor. On Arrakis itself, the key commodity is water. Water is so precious that the dead are rendered down for their water. “A man’s body is his own; his water belongs to the tribe.” In the wider universe, it is the spice mélange – and the struggle for control of it – which defines economics.
When a single commodity is so essential to society, weird things start to happen. People will prove willing to do nastier and nastier things for a measure of control over it, and machinations that would be utterly inexcusable under other circumstances become somehow expected when mélange is at issue. In Dune, Houses Harkonnen and Corrino hope to bring about the destruction of House Atreides through deceitful cunning by making them responsible for a drop in spice production. They believe – correctly as it turns out – that no matter how much House Atreides is respected, admired, and looked to for a certain measure of leadership, erstwhile allies will abandon them as fast as possible if the Atreides are found to be responsible for a decrease in spice production. “The spice must flow.”
Applications of this idea to real-world situations are pretty easy to draw. If the largest oil reserve in the world were not located around the Persian Gulf, I’m pretty convinced we wouldn’t be there now. Yes, Saddam was a brutal dictator who wanted to destroy us and we should have taken him out decades ago. Granted. We accomplished a positive moral good by ousting him from power. But he couldn’t have been the threat that he was and we wouldn’t have particularly cared one way or the other if he hadn’t been sitting on a few million barrels of oil per day. North Korea as at least as antagonistic as Iraq ever was, but because the only commodity they seem to have in quantity is famine, we can kind of let them stew. Oil made Saddam rich, and our desire for oil made us interested in the region. Were the Wahabis not backed by petrodollars, I don’t think they’d be able to mount the kind of concerted anti-civilization crusade in which they seem to be engaged.
This is a somewhat interesting exploration of the political ramifications of economic bottlenecks, but it isn’t really a primarily economic concern. In fact, the Dune Chronicles are not a primarily economic story. An exploration into economic pressures would have to deal with everyday people whose main concern is ultimately ensuring a table and putting food on it. The people in Herbert’s stories are anything but everyday people. At the very least, they are nobility, and don’t have to work for a living. But everyone there is either nobly born or the product of training programs that extend back thousands of years, granting near superhuman abilities to their practitioners. Duncan Idaho is a Swordmaster of the Ginaz, and thus one of the most formidable soldiers mankind has ever known. Paul Atreides is the Kwisatz Haderach, a mystical figure capable of powerful prescient visions, and a Duke to boot. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood is the end product of a millennia old training program and breeding scheme. More important, all of these people are either wealthy in their own right or supported by people who are. Herbert provides them with enough income so that he can have them go about the things he wants them to without having to worry about where their next meal is coming from, and basically leaves it at that. The most economically compelling people in the whole Chronicle are the Fremen, and Herbert basically finishes with them in Dune. The rest of the Chronicle has little to do with such economic concerns.
This is, of course, Herbert’s prerogative, and his political ideas are interesting enough that this de-emphasis placed upon economic concerns is not really a liability. But it does separate the characters from the reader. None of us are supermen, but all of us think about money. On the other hand, all of Herbert’s characters are possessed of abilities bordering on the inhuman, only think in the broadest, most macro-level economic terms, and do not seem to be possessed of any kind of economic attitude. And this last, more than anything, is what separates the rich from the poor. The difference is this: the poor and middle-class work for money. They perform a service and are paid a wage or salary. The rich have money work for them. They use money to get more money. Thus, there is a difference between being rich and being wealthy, just as there is a difference between being poor and being broke.
This makes for some interesting facts. For example, physicians, most of whose income is in the top 1-2% in the nation, are very rarely rich. They work for their money. If they want to get paid, they have to go to work. On the other hand, a rich person does not necessarily have to do anything for their income. They own enough things – properties, securities, bonds, you name it – that their wealth generates income without their having to do anything special. The attitudes that go along with this are rather distinct. The poor and middle class view currency as simply money they can use to meet their expenses. The rich view currency as a means for getting more of it. An entrepreneur who has an investment go south may be broke, but he isn’t poor. Give him enough time and he’ll try again. But the redneck who wins the lottery isn’t rich either, because in a few years, after he’s blown his pile, he’ll be back to working for a living. (Most of this paragraph was inspired by Robert T. Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money -- That the Poor and Middle-Class Do Not!, which, despite its title, is really good)
What makes the Dune Chronicles an essentially non-economic work is that none of the characters seem to deal with these tensions at all. They certainly deal with tension – truth existing within tension is one of the key conceits of Herbert’s work – but not these tensions. There is a bit of this in Dune, as the CHOAM company and its far-reaching influence motivates a number of the characters. CHOAM at this point deals with everything from the most mundane to the most exotic and everything inbetween: pundi rice, elacca wood, inkvines, whale fur, soostones, and Ixian machinery. Above all in value and significance is the spice mélange, but though it may be the cornerstone and most important feature in the economy, Herbert manages to hint at a world in which people actually live and have to eat. The spice may drive the galactic economy and the politics behind it, but farmers on Caladan are still harvesting their rice like they always have, spice be damned.
For me, this broader view is part of what makes Dune so fascinating. Unlike other fictional universes, Herbert makes a world in which billions of people can actually exist. Tolkien, even at his best, never manages this. Like the rest of the Dune Chronicles, Tolkien is only interested in heroes and their friends, with ancient mines, guardian cities, and Dark Lords. While this does make for unspeakably cool stories, thinking about the societies which must exist around these heroes can be rather disappointing. Take, for example, the imagery we see in the Lord of the Rings films, especially Rohan. How do these people eat? The Golden Hall is on a hill in the middle of freaking nowhere. There isn’t a farm field for miles. How, exactly, does this city survive? Where is the supporting rural population necessary for an urban population? In our day and age, the ratio of rural to urban can be really small, but there are still people who milk the cows and harvest the wheat. While off to a promising start in Dune, especially with the marvelous Fremen, Herbert basically punts economic pressures in the rest of his books, focusing instead on philosophical issues. Damn cool, but somehow incomplete, and this is especially disappointing given the promise of the first installment.
Keeping economics believable isn’t simply a gripe for realism. I’m more than willing to grant Herbert awareness-spectrum narcotics, Mentats, and prana-bindu training. No problem. But the depth to which you can get lost in a world is directly related to the depth at which that world can function. Dune was pretty deep. He had the Fremen lifestyle worked out really far down: water retention/collection, food production, social hierarchy, heavy industry, and the necessities of an essentially military community. But maintaining this level of detail while wanting to mess around with abstract political ideas is really hard. Most people don’t have the time, energy, or effort to spend on such pursuits because they’re too busy trying to feed their children. Thus, Herbert winds up not writing about most people. Which is okay, but does mean that the Dune Chronicles are not really about economics.