The Spice Must Flow

Parallels between Libya and Frank Herbert’s Dune

After having read Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune (written 1965) and learning more about Libya and its history due to recent events, I couldn’t help but notice quite a few similarities between the novel and actual politics surrounding the country. I am no expert on Dune nor Libya, but since there is virtually no information available on this topic and the stories, both fictional and actual, are very intriguing, I will share my thoughts with you. I am particularly interested in this issue as it relates strongly to my research on the mechanics of power and decentralisation. Both in Dune and Libya, the issue of power struggle and decentralisation in politics and economy as well as the all-pervasive dialectic are important topics.  I rely on you to maintain an open mind in investigating these parallels as well as to make up your own mind about the recent events in several Arab countries and Libya in particular.

Natural Resources and Power – The addiction to Spice and Oil to control the known Universe

Within the Dune universe, the story’s main planet Arrakis is of paramount importance because it is the only place where the resource known as Spice Melange can be produced. Spice is an addictive drug required for interstellar trade, as it gives the pilots of the universal transportation company, The Spacing Guild, the prescient abilities required to safely navigate the universe. The native people of Arrakis, the Fremen (free men?) eat spice and are thus familiar with its growing cycle. They exhibit parallels with the Bedouin people, both having a tribal structure and strict honour code. While the Fremen live in camps (sietches) by the time of the Dune novel, they formerly were Zensunni wanderers from another planet. The similarity in naming between the still-relevant religious Senussi order of Libya and the Zensunni religion should also be noted.

Countries with oil reserves such as Libya are crucial to the functioning of global trade, as most current transportation and energy production depends on it for fuel. Both in fiction and reality, a single resource holds the key to control the economy of the whole known, inhabited universe. Within the Dune novels, efforts are made to synthetically produce Spice, just as humans have conducted research on abiogenic oil generation. In Dune, the economy of the known universe is regulated by the CHOAM (Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles) company. Its vast influence may allude to the power of companies within the real world, especially the pivotal role of energy and banking corporations.

While oil might currently be relevant for the economy, water is the resource relevant to all life – both in reality and fiction. In Dune, this is recognised by the Fremen through their extremely cautious handling of this resource and the ritual significance they attach to it. They even recycle their own perspiration through specifically designed “still-suits” which remind us of how precious water actually is. The Fremen carefully collect water in underground reservoirs, vast reserves which they intend to use for the terraforming of the desert into a lush oasis. This is eventually accomplished through the preparations of a Fremen native, Imperial Planetologist Liet Kynes, and the policies of Paul Atreides government after his rise to power. In Libya, Gaddafi ordered the construction of the Great Man-made River project, which currently draws sweet water from Libya’s vast underground water reserves. This allows for terraforming and agricultural use of land which was previously part of the desert.


Authority and Government – Revolution and Decentralisation

Revolution is a central theme in both cases. In 1969, Gaddafi overthrew King Idris I, who was backed by the west, the United Kingdom in particular (as exemplified by his membership in the Order of the British Empire). Opinions on the structure of the government Gaddafi established vary. Particularly as the civil war of 2011 drew closer, the western media would have him depicted as a crazy de facto dictator. In official statements, he considered himself as a mere figurehead of the Libyan state, having overseen the changes towards a Libyan form of socialism and direct democracy through the General People’s Committees as outlined in his Green Book published in 1975. While it is implausible to assume that Gaddafi, as “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya”, would ever cease to exercise any influence on government, the view of the crazy dictator should be equally called into question, considering how living standards were raised as well as the implementation of direct democratic elements and efforts towards decentralisation. I think his speeches before the Arab League and the United Nations show his insight into political matters and his interest in the well-being of his people as well as Africa as a whole.

The protagonist in the Dune novel, Paul Atreides, is forced to flee and live with Arrakis’ native Fremen (similarly, Gaddafi grew up as a Bedouin). His father, Duke Leto Atreides, was killed and control of the planet conferred to Duke Vladimir Harkonnen, all under the patronage of the Emperor of the Known Universe, Padishah Shaddam Corrino IV. Paul is recognized as the Fremen’s Messias, bound to free them from tyrannical subjugation by foreign powers. He eventually succeeds in overthrowing both Duke Harkonnen and the Padishah Emperor through support of the Fremen using guerilla tactics, first disrupting the vital spice mining operations and finally seizing the capital. Paul’s prescient abilities had him set a “golden path” in order to ensure the survival of mankind, resulting in the necessary sacrifice of many. A main theme within Dune are the dangers of over-centralisation, in the words of Frank Herbert: “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.” “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgement, and your own mistakes.” Paul’s son, Leto II, even attaining the status of God-Emperor (understandably, given that he had perfect prescient abilities, turned the whole desert into fertile land and had the appearance of a huge human-sandworm hybrid), made a point in deliberately centralising power so as the people would never make the same mistake again and learn to rely on themselves.

In both fiction and reality, the initial goal of the revolution was to reclaim the country’s resources for their native people rather than having them being exploited by foreign powers. Establishing access to Water was crucial as it allowed for fertile lands and prosperity. While Gaddafi made moves towards decentralisation and direct participation, Leto II tried to teach his people a lesson through deliberate over-centralisation.


The Spice Must Flow – Autonomy as Taboo

Both Arrakis and Libya have been subject to outside rule by proxy and economic exploitation. Paul made sure that CHOAM profits would help the people of Arrakis, Gaddafi used the oil companies’ dividends to improve living standards (e.g. through housing and education for all Libyans).

In both fiction and reality, the effects of economic power are clearly shown. As the Padishah Emperor deploys his troops in the initial struggle between Harkonnen and Atreides forces on Arrakis, he chooses the banner of neither of the belligerents but instead of the universal development company CHOAM. This serves as a symbol that the economic interests transcend any conflict within the political dialectic of opposing parties, whether real or artificially created. It should also be reminder to us that the politics of Arrakis might not be all that different from those of Earth. As the Spacing Guild’s motto goes: “The spice must flow”.

The western media’s opinion on Gaddafi took a stark turn within a relatively short amount of time. The appearance of the rebels was foreshadowed by the actions he took towards economic autonomy: His chairmanship of the African Union and efforts towards a stronger, united Africa through the introduction of the gold dinar, a gold-backed currency planned to be required for the purchase of African oil. This move would have had a tremendous and potentially devastating effect on the value of the dollar as prime exchange currency. All entities wishing to procure African oil would have had to buy reserves of a potentially stable currency backed by actual resources rather than mere belief in consumerism and productivity. As it would be based on gold, inflation could not simply sky-rocket through quantitative easing as it happens with purely belief-based currencies. Of course, this gold-based currency would require the belief in the value and scarcity of gold, but at least it would be backed by an actual physical resource and be controlled by the African Union.

A plausible scenario is that the so-called rebels did not represent a significant portion of the Libyan population but rather the interest of hegemonic power in instigating civil war and thus preventing an increase in Libyan-African economic independence. In the “globalised” world, economic autonomy is the absolute taboo and deemed to be backward, isolationist and narrow-minded. While religious and humanitarian reasons have often been used as fronts, virtually all wars have been fought in the interest of preserving or expanding power. By controlling vast oil reserves, having access to an abundant water source, funding the construction of an African communications satellite and protecting local wealth through the introduction of an appropriate currency as mentioned above, the Gaddafi government might have become too autonomous for hegemonic “western” power to tolerate. It is telling that, 100 days after NATO started bombing Libya, a huge demonstration was held by the Libyan people in support of their government. If its policies had been so detrimental to the well-being of the people and their freedom repressed to the extent portrayed by the Western media, would they have fought against the “rebels” for such a long time even as the overwhelming force of NATO was against them?

As an outside observer, it is difficult to attest to which extent freedom of speech and direct democracy existed under the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. However, it is telling how the rebel’s National Transitional Council regarded those striving to create an autonomous Libyan state (with potential control over oil reserves) to be remnants of the Gaddafi government. Is it possible that the tribal elements of society cannot be properly managed outside of direct democratic non-partisan structures, maybe contributing to why Gaddafi installed them? Isn’t the first premise of democracy that people are entitled to determine their own fate? Yet, the National Transitional Council would not allow a secession now that Libya has been “united” under a (party-based) democracy. A contradiction, as the Libyans would now oppose each other politically through the party system as in all western democratic countries.

Can the overthrow of the imperial rule on Arrakis be likened to the ousting of Kind Idris I in Libya? Are the motives of Paul Atreides similar to those of Muammar Gaddafi in striving to free their native people from economic exploitation by foreign powers? Have the both had a genuine interest in the well-being of their own people? Have they both been aware of the problems that centralisation bring and thus tried to show that another way is necessary? Have they both contended with the overwhelming economic and military strength of imperial forces hellbent to control the known universe? Have they both been designated as terrorists, as they struggled to achieve autonomy, that which is forbidden in a time when mankind’s love of power over others still triumphs over his love of humanity?

Image credits:

Libyan Desert Oasis by

Frank Herbert’s Dune First Edition Book Cover

CHOAM by Giant Ideas

Libyan Dunes by Luca Galuzzi