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20 March 2024

Dune: Part Two depicts a world of ceaseless struggle – like our own

Resource scarcity, neo-feudalism, perpetual conflict: Denis Villeneuve’s film is not a fantasy but an epiphany of the present.

By John Gray

As an aesthetic spectacle Dune: Part Two is breathtaking. Glowing tableaux of a desert planet linger in the mind long after the plot has dimmed. With its pale blue skies, the alien landscape of Arrakis frames the austere, Bedouin-like life of the Fremen people for whom the planet is home. Giant sandworms and epic battle scenes add motion and violence, completing the pageant.

The warring empires and dynasties of Denis Villeneuve’s visual extravaganza have been derided for their archaism. Yet the film presents a world not unlike the one coming into being around us. It is an axiom of progressive thinking that there can be no irreversible return to the past. Liberal democracy may have run its course, but it will be succeeded by a regime of a kind never before known – an authentic type of socialism, a cosmopolitan egalitarian community or perhaps a technocracy governed by impartial experts. In fact, failing liberal societies are morphing into high-tech versions of feudalism. Dune: Part Two is not a phantasm of the future but an epiphany of the present.

Feudal societies were hierarchies in which power rested on the ownership of land. In Dune, power is based on control of a rare natural resource. Extracted from the fungal excretions of sandworm larva, the psychotropic drug spice enhances the lifespan and mental abilities of its users, giving some of them a prescience that facilitates interstellar travel. Social status is decided by the caste in which you are born, and any moves you can make serving the hereditary ruling elites.

Our way of life is similar. Far from being immaterial, the virtual economy exacerbates scarcity in the material resources it consumes while damaging the planetary environment. Much of the electricity required to produce cryptocurrencies comes from fossil fuels, a large portion from coal. The carbon footprint of the cloud has been estimated as being bigger than the airline industry’s. Data servers need cooling by irrigation, increasing water shortages. The minerals used in batteries require mining on a gigantic scale. Natural resources are the foundation on which our digital economy stands.

There are other parallels. In the Dune world, authority rests on a claim to possess a special sort of knowledge. Alongside the Spacing Guild that monopolises interstellar travel, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood ingest spice to develop a preternatural clairvoyance. By deploying their precognitive ability, they plan to fashion a superior species.

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Neo-feudal societies also invoke a kind of esoteric knowledge. An ever-more numerous “cognitive elite” professes to be able to set society on a path in which the oppressive structures of the past can be left behind. Unfortunately our lumpen intelligentsia is not as intelligent as the clerisy in the Middle Ages. Medieval theology was an incomparably more rigorous and diverse discipline than the hermetic gibberish of intersectionality. Much of social science consists of discredited dogmas. Mainstream economists not only failed to predict the great financial crash of 2008 – no such event featured in their list of imaginable futures. Among political scientists, barely a handful allowed that Trump’s victory in 2016 was a possibility. How many Kremlinologists anticipated the Soviet collapse, or the mutation of post-communist Russia into a revanchist neo-Orthodox empire? The most obvious feature of our knowledge class is how little they understand of the world.

With all their advances in science and technology, 21st-century societies lack the intellectual and cultural resources to recreate a feudal civilisation. The fundamental weakness of techno-feudalism is the poverty of its myths. Medieval societies were held together –and quite often violently divided – by a faith that promised paradise beyond the grave. When peasants and the urban poor rebelled – as they did in the millenarian movements that swept across medieval Europe – they were aiming to hasten a God-given transformation in their lives.

There is no such popular belief in the radiant future promised by neo-feudal societies. As they become more unequal, they have propagated a creed of technology-driven growth. Outside the haunted purlieus of Silicon Valley and Blairite think tanks, it is a dying faith. Practically no one believes they will be better off in future. The multitudes of graduates scrambling for positions as diversity officers and directors of lived experience understand, however dimly, that they cannot rely on a fable of perpetual economic expansion. Unless they can prove themselves faithful servants of the new aristocracy – the vulture capitalists and financial engineers who, one way or another, own much of the state – they are destined to follow the industrial working class into permanent redundancy.

Techno-feudalism is not a stable regime. Tightening ecological limits on growth, job-destroying technologies like AI, and the absence of any credible legitimating myth make a combustible admixture. That does not mean the system will collapse. The contradictions of our societies show no sign of giving birth to any new order. As Denis Villeneuve intimates, ceaseless struggle is the reality. The glory of his film is that, even as it offers no way out, it transfigures unending conflict into a thing of beauty.

[See also: Banning TikTok won’t save us]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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