Frank Herbert's Dune and the future of monarchy

Are better forms of governance really inevitable, and is progress itself inevitable? Thousands of years from now, will people still look at the ideas most people consider progressive now, and agree that they are so?

In a previous post, I talked about the British constitutional monarchy and how some feel now is the time to put an end to it. Yet some interpretations hold that there is nothing inevitable or even necessarily good about political and social change, and that in fact there is no clock pacing our civilization forward to a better time.

Reactionary science fiction

In Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune, adapted to a movie in 1984 by David Lynch and again in 2021 by Denis Villeneuve, we are presented with a world apparently tens of thousands of years in the future. It is some fine escapism because so little resembles our world today. Nothing important, divisive or aggravating in today's society exists in that world. Even the Earth itself is a distant memory, never mentioned in any dialogue or being a passing thought of any character.

The characters in Dune are motivated by values that would be alien to most Western audiences, and affected by conflicts between ancient forces that will not exist for us for many thousands of years. They follow traditions that, to us, don't even exist yet or mean anything to us.

Despite how strange it may seem, the political system in the distant future worlds of Dune is very clearly based on our own past. Rather than advancing forward to increased liberty, inclusiveness and kindness, darker aspects of humanity have won out. Feudalism has made a return, with no mention of democracy. Capital punishment seems to be commonplace, as are torture, duels and assassination.

But is this regression really possible? Can values that protect the flourishing of a sovereign people indeed be forgotten and replaced simply with the base desire to rule as a monarch? What historical precedent exists?

It isn’t unusual for things to get worse

The best example might be the Greek and Roman civilizations. Each of them established a democratic order for a time. Both Athens and Rome, in their heydays, were determined to maintain a constitution that prevented the abuse of power. The Romans loathed the idea of a monarch, and yet the ultimate evolution of their system turned out to be an empire of absolute rule. This later developed into a system of absolute spiritual rule in addition to temporal rule, under the Emperor Constantine, once Rome turned Christian. Can that kind of social change, driven by such fervour, really be considered progress?

When the meaning of change, changes

The defining difference between the left and right in politics - the progressive and conservative - is their attitude towards whatever set of reforms and changes are the order of the day. It has nothing to do with a particular set of ideas, ideologies or values but simply one's response to whatever social changes are held to be new and pertinent at the time, by a majority of people. In revolutionary France, the advocates of harsh nationalism were also the ones advocating increased rights for common people. Nationalists were considered the political left, attempting to redefine the people as sovereign rather than the monarch. Opposing them. the political right were the defenders of the old order of the monarchy and the church.

As the classical liberal reforms and changes that were once considered revolutionary came to pass, they came to be accepted and written into constitutions such as the American constitution. They aged and became associated with a stable order. In becoming old, these once-revolutionary ideas that had been loathed and fought against by conservatives became the new order the conservatives would defend.

Many views of politics are stuck in the Twentieth Century, because of the dramas of the Second World War and the Cold War. They imagine the political left to be a static set of ideas, essentially socialism or Marxism as applied in the Soviet Union, and imagine the political right to consist of permanent defenders of classical liberalism’s old maxim of life, liberty and property. This becomes confused, however, when modern issues like those surrounding LGBT rights come into the picture, because those would fit into the right-wing ideology based on the above definition, yet are staunchly opposed by the American right because they are contrary to tradition. Tradition is really the main defining feature of the right, rather than a prioritisation of individual liberty. A person on the right merely advocates classical liberalism as tradition.

What constitutes tradition changes, depending on who won out in the previous struggle. In countries that adopted Marxist systems of government, youthful rebellion and subversion came to be associated with Western influence and capitalism. On the other side, in countries that maintained Western capitalism, change has been associated for a long time with socialist movements and the youth were drawn to them, even rallying behind Jeremy Corbyn in the UK before his downfall.

We all want to be a character in some special story

Whether or not something is held to be a form of progress is entirely dependent on what thing challenges the established order. If democratic governments were in power for long enough, revolutionary movements would quickly see something new and promising in the idea of monarchy and wish to reimplement it. Social change is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to make sense or be consistent with past change, and it is normal for it to be awful.

Left vs right, liberty vs order, is simply defined by generational difference and possibly even boredom with what came before. You could have a society with no faults, and the energetic next generation would still find ample things to complain about and try to alter that society into something possibly worse or less stable just so they can feel special in the attempt.

Nobody wants to live in the end of history, or to do nothing about their world. They all want their lives to feel like a story where the world was set right at last, even if this means they must advocate regression or simply nonsense to get that sensation.