In 1965, Frank Herbert published the novel “Dune,” the first in a classic series about a planet called Arrakis that is rich in “the spice,” a precious resource of the distant future. The saga narrates the story of the Atreides, a family that comes to rule the planet and the indigenous Fremen. The tale is often understood as an anti-colonial epic. It projects into the eons Middle Eastern, African and Asian cultures, alongside indigenous traditions across the Americas. In particular, it imagines a thoroughly Muslim future.
But the saga may appear contradictory. Herbert engaged thoughtfully (if imperfectly) with a variety of what might be called non-Western traditions, including Islamic thought. But he also leaned strongly toward the Republican Party — a label seemingly at odds with such engagement. The dissonance is often seen as irreconcilable: “Dune” explores anti-colonialism and decenters Western thought, while Herbert’s politics simply stand in uncomfortable opposition.
Underlying that discomfort is the belief that genuine engagement with non-Western traditions cannot share kinship with the political right. Some have attempted to explain Herbert’s engagement by way of his politics: His portrayal of non-Western traditions must grow out of his conservative worldview and is therefore largely negative. It is impossible for both to have existed in the same mind. He must be a Janus — a man of two faces.
Allowing the discomfort to fix the inquiry avoids a more disturbing question. The standard explanation assumes that non-Western traditions, particularly Islamic thought, are a monolith, and moreover that they’re a monolith that belongs to the political left. Instead, we might see the paradox by way of Roxanne Euben’s “Enemy in the Mirror,” a work of comparative political theory. Euben shows that critiques of rationalism in Europe and the United States, including conservative thought, parallel Islamic fundamentalism. Each challenges science and law, advocating for the re-enchantment of the world. Euben suggests this phenomenon discredits Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis because the commonality shatters fixed boundaries between East and West. In my view, Herbert operated at this unstable meeting point.
Herbert’s politics are partly explained through his involvement in U.S. empire and the Republican Party. But these facts do not elucidate his ideology. Thin accounts of his beliefs thus cover up distinctions between left and right criticisms of legalism and liberalism. Moreover, they undercut the depth of Herbert’s engagement with non-Western traditions. Taking his ideology seriously offers a more precise, if also more uncomfortable, explanation of how he leaned right. It also exposes the American right’s troublesome alignments with Islamic thought. Ultimately, Herbert explored non-Western traditions not as objects of political critique, but rather as positive expressions of his politics.
One route into the puzzle is to ask how Herbert understood a single custom followed by the Fremen, the people indigenous to Arrakis, namely the “amtal rule.” The glossary for “Dune” defines the amtal as a “rule on primitive worlds under which something is tested to determine its limits or defect. Commonly: testing to destruction.” Jamis, a Fremen, invokes the rule to test whether Jessica, Paul’s mother, is part of the legend of the leader who will come to the Fremen. The rule requires her to offer a champion to fight the one who invokes the rule, meaning Jamis in this case. If she is in fact part of the legend, her champion will kill the challenger in combat. In the novel, as in the film, Paul becomes his mother’s champion and ultimately kills Jamis in a knife fight.
So conceived, the amtal rule resembles Max Weber’s orientalist archetype of “qadi justice,” that is, an arbitrary and brutal legal system absent the rule of law. But Herbert actually liked the amtal rule, and, as I will show, non-Western traditions in general. As Paul and his family reform Fremen customs in “Dune” and its sequels, the Fremen disconnect from their tradition. They grow increasingly legalistic, bureaucratic and prone to fanaticism. They unthinkingly follow Paul on a “jihad” to conquer the universe, not because they abide by their customs but rather because the reforms distance them from their tradition. Thus, the novel romanticizes a monolithic precolonial, premodern condition. It’s not qadi justice. But it is textbook Orientalism in the romantic tradition.
What is curious, however, is that Herbert may have imposed this Orientalist romanticism onto his conservative understanding of American values. In 1982, he praised Ronald Reagan for keeping “that dream of the idealized America firmly in mind,” seeking to “restore the individual to his preeminent position in this society.” According to Herbert’s son, Brian, he disliked McCarthyism because it “endangered the central freedoms” of the American people, particularly the constitutional “rights of individuals.” If the “Dune” novels sought to restore an essential non-Western tradition, Herbert also wanted to restore an essential American one.
Herbert may have thought these two traditions were the same. A close reader knows that the amtal idea of “testing to destruction” permeates the entire “Dune” universe. Knife fights are not unique to the Fremen. The novel, like the film, begins with Paul’s knife training. The Atreides forces, alongside the Janissary-like Sardaukar of the universe’s Padishah emperor and the Russian-influenced Harkonnens, fight with knives. In the novel’s finale, Paul kills the Baron Harkonnen’s nephew in a knife fight, thereby attaining the imperial throne. The productive capacity of violence also appears in the famous gom jabbar test, by which a missionary order, the Bene Gesserit, tests whether Paul is a genetically bred superman. The planet Arrakis itself — with its storms, scarce water and giant sandworms — is itself an ecological amtal test for the Fremen. But it is also such for Paul, as are the harsh conditions of the Harkonnen and Sardaukar planets for those peoples.
Collapsing Herbert’s ideas of American and non-Western traditions, particularly Islam, is discombobulating. If the Fremen are savage adherents to qadi justice, it’s unclear who the savages are supposed to be in relation to their supposed savior, Paul. Is Paul the T.E. Lawrence to the Fremen Bedouin? Or is he the Prophet Muhammad to the Quraish whom he reformed — or to later conflicts about his successors? The historical Mahdi to the Berbers, Sudanese or Caucasians — or the eschatological Mahdi (or Dajjal) to their descendants in the distant future? Jesus to the Romans? A colonial bureaucrat or rival chief to the Mura, Arawak, Navajo, Quileute, Kalahari, Indonesian or Malay peoples?
Paul is all of this and more. But he is also John F. Kennedy, and the Fremen are the American people. How does one square the claim that Paul is a white savior, a reformer of stagnant Fremen custom, with the fact that Herbert disliked Americans’ unabashed adoration for JFK, to whom he frequently compared Paul? How could Herbert be a conservative critic of American liberals if his portrayal of the Atreides family, the saga’s liberals par excellence, is too sympathetic? If the Bene Gesserit breeding programs are extensions of Herbert’s eugenicist ideology, then how do they also mirror the missionary work of the Fatimid Caliphate that proselytized Abdullah ibn al-Husayn as the Mahdi, the 12th Imam in Shiism, across the Middle East and North Africa? Put simply, if reform was the problem, what was the tradition Herbert sought to recover?
A careful read of the amtal scene reveals that Jamis invokes the rule out of step with its true purpose. When they first meet, Paul bests Jamis in combat. Accordingly, when Jamis invokes the rule, he does so as an excuse to get the better of Paul, not to actually test the legend. In the novel (less so in the film), the Fremen leader Stilgar encourages Jamis to stand down. But Jamis is a man possessed of “anger,” too unstable to be a “leader.” Emasculated by Paul, Jamis misuses Fremen tradition to satisfy his hubris — much like Paul does in his rise to power.
Jamis is ill-suited for leadership, Stilgar explains, because he has “too much ghafla, the distraction.” The glossary defines ghafla as “giving oneself to gadfly distractions. Thus: a changeable person, one not to be trusted.” In Islam, “ghaflah” (heedlessness, ignorance) is often described as a disease of the heart, an inner restlessness. That meaning is underscored when Stilgar adds: “He gives his mouth to the rules and his heart to the sarfa, the turning away.” Thus, Jamis is not a savage stuck in rigid custom but rather a lost soul who has strayed from the rule’s more profound purpose.
This context aligns with the meaning of “amtal.” The term is likely an elision of the Arabic word “amthal” (proverbs, literally “similitudes”), a word repeated throughout the Quran to describe revelation, and even the universe, as the “alam al-mythal” (world of similitudes). “Alam al-mithal” appears throughout the “Dune” novels, defined in the glossary as “the mystical world of similitudes where all physical limitations are removed.” Moreover, the amtal rule’s “test to destruction” reflects the Islamic idea of “fana” (obliteration), in which one destroys one’s self in order to align one’s agency with the divine. In “Dune,” the Fremen synonymize the amtal with “the tahaddi challenge,” which the glossary defines as a “Fremen challenge to mortal combat, usually to test some primal issue.” (Tahaddi simply means “challenge” in Arabic.) But Herbert understood physical combat as a vessel for deeper truth. Early in the novel, Dr. Yueh, the Atreides family physician who betrays them and then tries to redeem himself, describes his difficulties as “my own tahaddi al-burhan” (challenge of proof), defined in the glossary as “an ultimate test from which there can be no appeal (usually because it brings death or destruction).”
When we look at the amtal rule in this light, Jamis fails to engage the rule’s greater truth. He lives only for his material self, his heart closed to the higher realm. Muslims sometimes frame this as prioritizing the “nafs” (self) over the “ruh” (soul). Likewise, in “Dune,” the Fremen believe their “ruh-spirit” can sense their “true existence” in the alam al-mithal.
The amtal scene mirrors Herbert’s view of 1960s civil rights movements. For him, the protesters’ call for “Power to the People” meant “power to me and I’ll tell the people what to do.” Perhaps Jamis is an immature liberal, disconnected from true American values. The amtal rule, like the American tradition, remains sacred. The people have merely abused it.
During Herbert’s time, it was common to find key elements of American culture in non-Western traditions. This was particularly true of core works on resource management. In the influential 1967 article “Toward a Theory of Property Rights,” economist Harold Demsetz drew on anthropological studies of the Algonquian and Iroquois peoples in Quebec. For Demsetz, Eleanor Leacock’s memoir on their fur trade during colonization evidenced the natural development of property as a legal solution to “self-help” or “brute force.” Likewise, ecologist H. Scott Gordon, in his foundational 1954 essay “The Economic Theory of a Common-Property Resource: The Fishery,” drew on studies of the Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea. For Gordon, Bronislaw Malinowski’s account showed that even such “primitive cultures” knew “the necessity of co-ordinating” via a public or private property regime.
But Herbert’s approach diverged. Where these scholars looked to “primitives” as abstract models for 20th-century property theory, Herbert saw them as influences on American culture. One might read this into the way non-Western traditions saturate his future, beyond the Fremen. More significantly, Herbert drew different lessons from non-Western traditions. Economists, ecologists and lawyers found in these so-called primitives legal liberalism: Their practices employed abstracted rules and institution-like social organization that increased the efficiency of resource management. These scholars extracted what Herbert dubbed “ethical law,” which holds “that I, the thinking animal, see the logical consequences of these moral actions are such and so and maybe I’d better modify the moral law slightly by a higher ethical law.” By contrast, Herbert regarded ethical law as the domain of unconscious “myth-making,” prone to claims of “absolute rightness.” Instead, he saw non-Western traditions as positive sources of more complex social practices.
In part, Herbert understood non-Western societies as sites where ethics were overcome by “religion,” “necessity,” “limits” or “the moral life … something that is imposed upon people by their environment.” While this characterization might invoke the romantic “ecological Indian,” Herbert seemed to believe that moral rules, if out of sync with environmental change, could upset ecological harmony. In fact, he explicitly rejected romanticization: “Many people … think that the Indians were the best ecologists this land has ever seen. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Some native American cultures were actually quite hard on their environments. They were just slower — because their populations were small — at causing damage than the whites were.”
Herbert did not view this phenomenon as unique to non-Western traditions. He defined “moral law” by arguing that it emerged in “our society” from “our nomadic background and herdsman background. … We see all kinds of moral injunctions which grew out of that and which we accept today logically.” Neither did he look down on those who adhered to moral life, adding: “I’m not trying to denigrate them … but we can trace it this way.”
Still, Herbert was as cautious of a purely moral life as he was of ethical law. “Our law originated in religion,” he said, “came out of religion into a conscious attempt to manipulate society and then went back into its theological cocoon, where it is now in our society.” He observed the same pattern in non-Western traditions and wrote it into the Fremen story. While the Fremen long developed ecological techniques for greening Arrakis, it is not until bureaucratic imperialists’ large-scale terraforms that the planet turns green en masse.
For Herbert, a loss of “individualism” is the “unintended consequence” of ecological and social reform among the Fremen. Their moral life is “locked in” to their environment, and, with terraforming, “the environment changed” but not “their social mythology, their values or their ways of relating to one another.” Fremen tradition initially collapsed “law” and “religion,” and, following these changes, they cannot adapt to new conditions. When imperialists bring legal change, the new law becomes a religion. Fremen leaders devolve into staid bureaucrats and their people into unthinking followers of Paul’s family. While their eagerness to follow a leader allows them to overthrow the empire, Paul and his family become their new rulers. The Fremen worship the Atreides like many Americans worshipped at the altar of the Kennedys, Herbert’s present-day House of Atreus.
At the same time, the description of Jamis as ill-suited for leadership matches Herbert’s concern about the dangers of ethics. Jamis calls for justice according to the amtal rule but only as a way to satisfy his ego. This resonates with Herbert’s skepticism of absolute claims of “justice,” which he applied across the political spectrum. In “Dune,” a famous banquet scene was meant to display the hypocrisy of the Atreides’ talk of justice as indistinguishable from the brutality of the Harkonnens. Herbert likely intended the scene to reflect his experience seeing his boss, the Republican Sen. Guy Cordon, commiserate with Robert Kennedy and his cousin Joe McCarthy in the latter’s notorious media show trials. In the third novel, the vile Baron Harkonnen returns as an “abomination,” an ancestral memory haunting the mind of Paul’s sister (who, like Jamis, is in a state of ghafla), and he encourages her to appeal to abstract “justice” to subdue the Fremen population.
But Herbert did not critique justice as an ideal or change as a method of achieving it. He wrote that “all humans are not created equal” but only after describing his disillusionment with legal liberalism: “Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals we should seek, but we should recognize that humans administer the ideals and that humans do not have equal ability.” Consequently, he liked politicians whose imperfections were obvious — Richard Nixon because he exposed the corruption of the office and Reagan because he was an actor and thus drew attention to the president’s artificiality.
Likewise, while Herbert decried 1960s protesters as prone to self-gratulation and hero worship, he immediately added: “I don’t think there’s a fucking bit of difference between a bureaucracy that is instituted by a democratic regime, a state socialist regime, a communist regime or a capitalist regime.” Was he skeptical of Black and Brown activists, or of white liberals? In this context, it is intriguing that he advocated decriminalizing drugs during a period when drug policy was highly racialized. He also remained optimistic about Jimmy Carter, praising him for reversing course after an erroneous appeal to “ethnic purity” (i.e., to white Americans’ fear of federally enforced desegregation). Later, Reagan’s “foreign policy scare[d] the shit out of” Herbert (perhaps because of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan).
Herbert also favored localized welfare reform. While “the whole ripcord welfare state … systematized increasing dependence,” he stressed the importance of “interdependence.” He proposed that “the effluent of an urban community could become a tool for keeping the land around the city fertile” (although one may read this as a “Hillbilly Elegy”). His model for drug policy reform involved a government-funded, 50-cent “fix” for drug addicts “at the corner drugstore.”
Meanwhile, the entirety of the “Dune” series may be read as a narration of counterrevolutions, a series of rebellions that initially succeed and are subsequently upended. As one character puts it, revolutions carry the seeds of their own destruction — a version of Herbert’s idea that reform of ethics can lead to absolutism.
In this context, perhaps the failure of the saga’s anti-colonial struggles denies agency to the Fremen. But it may also untangle romantic archetypes of ecological harmony or the glory of anti-colonial revolution. After all, Herbert’s skepticism of liberalism generates unusual alignments. His portrait of the Fremen jihad as a consequence of imperial legal reform mirrors historian Indira Gesink’s argument that jihadists’ use of “ijtihad” (independent reasoning) was a result of missionary projects that proselytized pure reasoning, disrupting extant legal traditions. More generally, leftists have found much in the saga. Herbert’s critique of abstract justice, law, revolution and the purity of non-Western traditions are not dissimilar from left and anti-colonial critiques of legal liberalism.
Thus, Herbert’s politics are not solely attributable to his skepticism of law and liberals. Where, then, to locate his politics? With the amtal rule, Herbert articulated his politics through an involved engagement with Islam.
In the amtal, it may seem that Herbert aimed to recover an irrational, ideal premodern condition — the moral life. But Herbert actually saw the amtal as a test for balancing morality and ethics.
The amtal’s engagement with Islam is even more specific than a meditation on ghafla. The novels incorporate debates about the interpretation of the Quran, playing on Islamic theology and exegesis. In exegetical discourse, tahaddi is used to describe a challenge repeated throughout the Quran: a dare to those who question its authenticity to produce a work of equal grandeur. Moreover, “sarfa” (leaving, abandoning), which Stilgar defines as “turning away,” is an explanation of the tahaddi. It refers to the idea that God directly turns away those who attempt to produce a work as inimitable as the Quran.
The references in “Dune” encompass the theological discourse. Sarfa is a position typically assigned to rational interpretations of the Quran, particularly from the Mu’tazili theological school. But the novels also draw on the Mu’tazilis’ opponents, the Ash’aris, through the term “bi-la kaifa.” Ash’aris used the phrase “bila kayfa” (“without asking how”) to indicate that particular passages have to be accepted without rational explanation. For instance, where the Quran describes God as possessing a hand or throne, Mu’tazilis would attempt to explain how this could be, while Ash’aris simply stated, “bila kayfa.” Bi-la kaifa (sometimes “bi-lal”) features throughout the “Dune” novels, defined in the glossary as “Amen. (Literally: ‘Nothing further need be explained.’)” The phrase appears around strenuous tests, like the amtal, intended to unlock spiritual connection: first when Paul performs a key ritual and enters the alam al-mithal (compared by the Fremen to a central story in Islam, the Night Journey) and second when his son decides to undergo a similar test in the third novel (translating “bi-lal kaifa” as “without qualification”).
Drawing on sarfa and bila kayfa, the novels juxtapose multiple theological schools within the portrayal of spiritual tests. This complex engagement suggests that Herbert did not see the amtal rule, and the other spiritual “tests by destruction,” as solely the domain of moral life. The novels incorporate both rationalist and antirationalist Islamic positions within their approach to the amtal. In other words, the amtal is a route toward balancing ethics and morality, reason and its limits: a physical act that taps into the metaphysical.
The novels even suggest that such tests can become a dangerous site for ethics, not morals. When Paul is about to perform the above mentioned ritual, his description of the alam al-mithal is similar to Herbert’s description of ethics as abstracted, rather than limited by the necessities of moral life. Paul recalls that it is a realm lacking “all physical limitations … the landscape of a myth,” in which “he could not orient himself and say: ‘I am I because I am here.’” These lines resonate with Paul’s later phrase, in an appendix: “I am here; so …” This suggests that Paul’s ascent to a limitless spiritual zone contains the dangers of ethical absolutism. Spirituality is not necessarily a source of morality. Perhaps Herbert had in mind something like the precarity of drunk Sufism.
That precarity is also suggested when Paul reforms the Fremen custom for political succession, which mirrors the amtal. According to this custom, each leader is chosen by defeating the predecessor in a knife fight. Paul gets the Fremen to accept his leadership not by killing their current leader, Stilgar, but rather with a decision from the people. Paul uses a combination of “the Voice,” a means of linguistic mind control, and “logic” to persuade the Fremen. Both Paul and the Fremen are involved in a system of hero worship: He accepts and seizes his leadership as readily as they force it upon and accept it from him. Thus, that chapter’s epigraph — “How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.” — refers as much to Paul as to the Fremen, united in their anger for the Harkonnens. Paul and Jamis, JFK and the American public, become one in their ghafla. They got there by employing both force and reason.
Herbert was skeptical of revolution, but he believed in forms of change that mediated moral and ethical rules. It is there that his politics can be located. He advocated a “conscious” invention of “myths” that balanced morality and ethics: “[W]e ought to explore this myth-making facility in human beings as a conscious exercise.” People must remain connected to the necessities of their society and environment while adapting to change without worshiping abstract notions of right or wrong.
Herbert’s mediating solution was fundamentally non-Western. “Western man,” he explained, “need[s] a clear distinction … between the ethical norm and the moral life.” By contrast, many of history’s great “reformers,” like Jesus and Muhammad, attempted to balance the two. “You will find counterparts to Western mythology in oriental mythology,” he continued. “You find almost perfect fits.” Ultimately, the amtal rule is exactly this: a test of similitudes, proverbs, myths. The novels describe both the moral and ethical aspects of that test within the boundaries of Islamic discourse. The amtal is an attempt to balance the two, not an assertion of either.
Looking toward “Oriental mythology,” Herbert doubled back into the romantic past. He idealized precolonial, non-Western traditions as models for mediating morality and ethics. Concurrently, his nostalgia for precolonial Muslims fit into a particular Islamic idea of returning to the early generations of the faith — that is, Salafism. The novels incessantly hark back to the precolonial “Old Fremen” who were not locked in their ways. Long ago, the Fremen balanced morality and ethics when they were “Zensunni wanderers.” Escaping persecution, they migrated to Dune, where their customs became fixed to their environment and their colonial condition. The series constantly refers back to that precolonial tradition. An appendix reinforces the Islamic idea of the sanctity of divine revelation and the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. In the third novel, Stilgar remarks: “We Fremen have our science of tradition, our hadith,” which they “revert to” when they fear missionary manipulation. The entire series ends with remnants of lost traditions: a community of Jewish refugees; the last member of the Nahua/Pashtun-inspired Bene Tleilaxu (likely from the Nahuatl “tlatlaxtli,” for something thrown down, dropped, aborted or plowed/cultivated into the land), bioengineers who speak the “Islamiyat” (Urdu for “Islamic schooling”), as he carries an ampule containing his people’s and the Atreides family’s genetic seed bank; Duncan Idaho, Paul’s “dark-skinned” companion from the first novel, who, now in his 12th reincarnation (a “ghola,” from the Arabic “ghoul”) since the death of the Tleilaxu’s prophet (Paul’s son), is hinted to be the true Mahdi, the 12th Imam; and the only remaining Fremen, who goes “dervish-whirling on a dune” and seeks to restore the Zensunni roots of her tradition. This group migrates with a sandworm to form a new Arrakis, “similar but different.”
If there is any doubt that Herbert was a Salafist, he all but said it. In the third novel, a character calls on the “Qadis as-Salaf” (Judges of the Ancestors), the “holy fathers of the Fremen mythology” — a reference to the first generations of Muslims. And, perhaps, to the Salafi movement. The novels share with Salafism the idea that later generations, the “New Fremen,” follow customs unthinkingly, corrupting the teachings of their ancestors. Herbert, like the Salafists, critiqued present customary practices in order to recover a complex but nonetheless ideal past.
The novels’ Salafism was also where Herbert’s politics leaned right. The amtal is a test of the self, a way of mediating morality and ethics within one’s own character. Power structures, the novels suggest, exist only because people believe in them. Thus, Paul and the Fremen are equally at fault in his rise to power and in the erosion of their tradition. The saga narrates a series of amtal challenges, physical and metaphysical tests of individual characters. It is a fundamentally atomized understanding of social relations. The fact that Paul is a colonizer renders him no different from the Fremen he reforms and oppresses. Power, for Herbert, is only dialectical. In fact, it is possible Herbert drew on the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s “master-slave” dialectic. The amtal’s “test to destruction” reads like Hegel’s description of his dialectic as a “struggle to the death.” As the Martiniquan freedom fighter and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argued, Hegel’s dialectic fails to grasp asymmetries of power. Everyone is equally responsible, even for their own suffering.
Herbert’s individualism is labile. In some ways, his approach celebrates grassroots power and articulates the dangers of populism. It also grants individuals radical agency: It is only your belief in your lack of agency, in the “chains” that bind you (as Paul’s sister puts it), that strip you of agency. No one is inevitably stuck in a power relation. On the other hand, this worldview fails to grasp structural power. The personal decisions of imperialists are as to blame as those of subalterns. Paul, like JFK, is as bad (or good) as his followers. People are not born equal, but they do owe equal duties to one another. Native Americans’ problem is how their ecology balanced morality and ethics as much as settler colonies, which Herbert did not connect to American individualism.
The underlying political quietism of “Dune” can be found among both American conservatives and some Muslim leaders, particularly those one might call Salafist. Many conservative Muslims, for instance, claim that capitalism or individual rights originated in Islam; that Marxism involves a selfish investment in the material ego; and that systemic racism is actually interpersonal. Moreover, Herbert’s approach to the amtal rule mirrors a view within Islam that self-improvement comes from individual introspection rather than social engagement, a philosophy that may have influenced Locke’s tabula rasa.
Herbert expressed his individualism through Fremen tradition. The saga situates as uniquely Fremen the concept that individual discipline is the foundation of community governance and social change. The third novel frequently refers to the Old Fremen in this way. For instance, Stilgar describes the “sietch as a model for all thinking” and adds: “A sense of enclosure should pervade every individual choice—should fence in the family, the community, and every step taken by a proper government.” Later, another character remarks: “The old sietch folk are more disciplined, more inclined to group actions and they tend to work harder; they are more careful of their resources. The old folk still believe that the orderly society is the fulfillment of the individual.”
In this way, Herbert further deviated from trends in resource management during his time. Ecologist Garrett Hardin, in his classic 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” advocated “legal” over “technical” solutions to global resource problems. Hardin promoted property regimes and regulation through the mechanisms of the “administrative state.” Meanwhile, Herbert’s amtal rule not only critiques this sort of legalism, but even challenges the distinction between law and technology, the abstractions of ethics and the material limitations imposed by the moral life. Where Hardin exalted law, Herbert drew on non-Western traditions’ varied approaches to the self. “Great societies are great,” Herbert said, “because of the character of the people they develop, not because of the laws they have.” Hardin was a eugenicist, whereas Herbert’s eugenicists, the Bene Gesserit, are not clear heroes. Hardin looked down on the crowded masses of the developing world, but Herbert admired non-Western peoples’ complex approach to the morality/ethics boundary. While Hardin was conservative, he was also a liberal and a legalist — two objects of Herbert’s ire.
If “Dune” is liberal, its liberalism is older. Its roots may be in Hardin’s intellectual predecessors. Focusing on law, Hardin modified the work of the 19th- and 18th-century economists William Foster Lloyd and Robert Malthus. Lloyd and Malthus advocated for “moral restraint,” in which individuals or families must adjust habits for proper resource distribution. But Hardin argued stronger legal solutions were necessary at the global scale. By contrast, Herbert remained in Lloyd and Malthus’s world, even at the scale of the universe. In “Dune,” change arises only from the moral restraint of individuals and communities, not structural reform. In the fifth novel, a character claims that the only way to survive “in a hostile universe lay” not in communal bureaucracy but “in scrupulous adherence to mutual loyalty … founded in sharing and Sharing … set firmly in political consciousness and a view of history independent of other laws and customs.” Herbert’s understanding of community rested on this concept of individual, localized moral restraint.
Herbert’s older brand of liberalism likely aligned with his economics. The novels are skeptical of merchants, and the characters repeatedly malign the corporate and imperial institutions that manipulate extraction and trade of Arrakis’ invaluable resource, the spice. This seems to mirror classical economic liberal critiques of mercantilism.
Even more telling are Herbert’s own contradictions. He liked Reagan’s artificiality but believed his recovery of American individualism was real. He despised JFK’s charisma but evidently fell for Reagan’s. Of course, time has proven Herbert wrong: Donald Trump — both visibly corrupt, like Nixon, and an artificial media personality, like Reagan — has exacerbated the populism Herbert abhorred.
Herbert’s contradictions are most blatant in a 1976 interview with WBAI radio host Jim Freund and journalist Margot Adler. He argued that leaders are produced by their peoples, who then scapegoat the leaders for their mistakes, instead of blaming themselves. An exchange ensued:
Adler: I probably would have to agree with a small portion of that. However, I’m not so sure that —
Herbert: You see —
Adler: — power doesn’t come into it at some level.
Herbert [speaking over]: If you want to change the society and not just go on a big revolution trip, you really want to change the society nonviolently, then we all have to participate in the change.
Adler: I agree with that —
Herbert: And we —
Adler: — but I’m not so sure that’s —
Herbert: And we have to set it up so that nobody is excluded from participation.
Attempting to assert his theory of power as a disaggregated, individual phenomenon, Herbert enacted its flaws. An attentive observer can detect the hubris in his tone, in the ready interruption. While he generally abjured celebrity, Herbert, in this small moment, failed to acknowledge the weight he carried in the conversation. Decrying exclusion, he excluded dissent. He became Jamis, lashing out. But unlike Jamis, ghafla was not the sole cause of his ego’s triumph. The other cause was his asymmetric power in the exchange.
Ultimately, Herbert was more Tleilaxu than Janus. In the series, the Tleilaxu are Sufi legalists and ardent monotheists who speak Islamiyat and hail from “the Yaghist” — perhaps a reference to Salafi-influenced Deobandi schools in “Yaghistan” (land of the free), an area in the Afghanistan/Pakistan North-West Frontier. Some Tleilaxu are “Face Dancers,” able to appear as others. During the fifth novel, a Bene Gesserit attempts to convert a Tleilaxu, manipulating him with a myth she invented. But, as their negotiation proceeds, they both find themselves seduced by her invented myth. The missionary realizes that her invention stumbled upon a profound, heretical truth, and, together, they come to a spiritual and political alliance. They join forces to reverse the course of “modernization,” and the Bene Gesserit become missionaries for Tleilaxu traditionalism. Quoting the Sermon on the Mount (“By their fruits, ye shall know them”), another missionary realizes, “Some of the old religions can still produce wisdom.” Herbert lived at that shifting boundary between the constructed categories of East and West. He did not carry his politics and non-Western engagement as two faces. Rather — like the wily, spiritual and traditionalist Face Dancers — his was a single visage in motion.