The Politics and Economics of Dune


Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune is considered one of the greatest books in the entire genre, a true “triumph of the imagination.” Although the universe of Dune takes place thousands of years in the future with technology that we could only dream of at this point, the setting of the entire story contains many inspirations from our own world. One of the most intriguing aspects of Dune is the background economic and political environment, as it has many parallels with our own world. These parallels are derived from many events throughout human history, ranging as far back as the medieval era to the modern world of today. By linking historical evidence with examples, clear connections between the fictional world of the 11th millennium can be traced back to events in our own timeline in regards to the political and economic climate.

Monarchies & Feudalism

The contract between the vassals and the peasants was that the vassal would protect them with his knights as long as the peasants worked the fief and paid their dues.

The ruling government in the universe of Dune is the Imperium, ruled by the Emperor Shaddam IV for 57 years at the start of the story. The title and name of this leader alone shows that the government is a monarchy system, where a single ruler who belongs to a certain family line is in power. Monarchies are one of the oldest forms of government in human history, dating back as far as the ancient kings of Mesopotamia (University of Chicago, 2014). Monarchies were very numerous hundreds of years ago, but are very rare today, as more democratic governments are the current norm. It is interesting that society would regress back to a monarchy system instead of progressing into a new type of government that suits the expanding civilization. There are some strengths to the monarchy system, such as how having one person in charge centralizes the government and streamlines progress, as only one member needs to make a decision that does not require a congress or senate evaluating for consensus (Monod, 2004). In the universe of Dune, this could make sense depending on what events have happened in the universe, such as a constant threat of xenos that would need a united humanity under one throne for quick decision making (this is never mentioned however and is mere speculation).

In Dune, there are the Great Houses, families of nobility who have been granted their status by the Emperor and have their own miniature empires. In our world back in the medieval era, this is most akin to feudalism (International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2015). The heads of the Great Houses are essentially vassals, people entrusted by the Emperor to secure a section of his great Imperium and given a title of nobility. In return, the must pay a small tithe to the Imperium, in the case of Arrakis it is the spice. During one phrase in the book, the planets Caladan and Arrakis, which are both owned by House Atreides at different points in time, are referred to as “the fief of Caladan” and “the fief of Arrakis.” Fief is the word in feudalism for the territories given to the vassals to defend and gather taxes from. This further displays the connection between our feudal society and the government of the far future as perceived by Frank Herbert.

The Great Guilds & Monopoly

Space merchants are always happy, especially in the universe of Dune where they control the entire Imperium economically. At least until Paul shows up.

Another theme in Dune that appears to have already been observed in the real world is the state of interplanetary travel and trade. Planetary travel is completely controlled by the Guild, an organization with the technology, resources, and power that everyone in the Imperium essentially relies on in order to get from one world to another. It can be inferred that they make quite a good profit, as well; since they are the only organization with the capability to transport people and supplies across vast distances, everyone must come, and ultimately, pay them. Another massive monopoly in the universe of Dune is CHOAM, a company that manages spice production, which is also absolutely necessary for space travel. CHOAM is so large that most of the nobility, including the Emperor, have shares in it and profit greatly from CHOAM. Both of these kinds of themes are seen back in the 1600s to 1800s in the colonial world, where massive trade empires and companies dominated the market through mercantilism (Northrup, 2003). A good example to compare to is the British Empire of this time and the company known as the East India Company. The East India Company started as a small trading company but eventually grew into such a massive monopoly that they controlled over half of worldwide trade by the 1700s (New World Encyclopedia, 2013). The company had so much power that they could indirectly control the government decisions, as many nobles and even monarchs had shares in the company, very similar to how Emperor Shaddam IV in Dune has the most shares in CHOAM. This makes the nobles and royalty directly invested into the well-being of the company, leading to them playing their hand in company affairs in order to maximize their own profits. The East India Company eventually became so powerful that they had their own private military to enforce their will across India and wage battles against Indians, Chinese, and other competing European powers (Robins, 2012). They had control over the government and could direct policy to a certain extent, such as increasing taxes and customs for all traded goods, some of the high taxes contributing to the cause of the American Revolution (New World Encyclopedia, 2013). CHOAM wields the same leverage and power, as the moment Paul begins attacking spice production, the Emperor himself shows up with the Guild and many Great Houses, ready to wage war as “the spice must flow.” Another quite obvious parallel is that the largest grossing product traded by the East India Company are actual spices (Robins, 2012).

The Smugglers

"The look of some classy sci-fi smugglers, armed to the teeth just in case."

The monopoly of the guilds helped spawn another theme that is seen in many sci-fi works and can be traced back to the real world: space smugglers. The smugglers take spice and deliver it across the galaxy for those who cannot access it via the Guild. The main characteristic of their organization is that they are the only group outside of the Guild that has the capability for interplanetary travel. Although it is illegal, the only reason they are in business is because some people don’t want to deal with the Guild and their high prices/business practices. This is again, similar to the smugglers of the 18th century in our own era, when the British Empire and the East India Company dominated the entire trade world. Tariffs as high as 70% made the cost of stolen goods significantly cheaper and worth the risk of buying from the smugglers, keeping them in business for decades (Platt, 2014). Just like the smugglers who went against the British monopoly of naval trade, the smugglers in Dune are only in the business because the Guild’s practices make them such a viable alternative. The smugglers during the colonial era didn’t die out until the Navigation Acts, which allowed Britain to dominate trade, were repealed in the mid-1800s (Platt, 2014). At the end of Dune, it is likely that the Guild will suffer the same breakup of its monopoly, as Paul ends up controlling the spice, and ultimately the Guild.

Semi-Slave Masses

Factory workers in China begin another day in the factories.

The world of Arrakis is home to a native population known as the Fremen, who are the ones who go out and actually mine for the spice. This occupation is clearly very hazardous, as the living conditions of Arrakis alone and the local fauna, aka the worms, make the job one of the most dangerous in the Imperium. Despite that, the job still has to be done, but the workers don’t seem to get very much out of risking their lives every day for the survival of the Imperium’s space travel. The quote from Dr. Kynes’ father describes the situation as, “Arrakis is a one-crop planet. One crop. It supports a ruling class that lives as ruling classes have lived in all times while, beneath them, a semihuman mass of semislaves exists on the leavings…” (Herbert, 1965). This explains how the nobility, such as the Great Houses and their families, the rich, and the Guild live as the ruling class while the Fremen mine the “one crop” for them to reap the benefits of. This is seen in modern times as well since the end of the colonial era, as many developed countries rely on manufactured goods from other countries where the workers do not have as many rights. An example of this economic dependency can be seen in China, as they supply most of the 1st world, especially the United States, with manufactured electronics that we use every day (MIT, 2015). The workers who create these products for the US have horrendous working conditions and hazards, similar to the Fremen. These conditions include forced overtime with little pay, keeping them in poor housing conditions, not letting them quit despite contracts, and more (Stracke, Lendal, & Johannisson, 2013). Despite all of this, the hard and cruel labor where the workers are barely rewarded helps to keep other developed countries such as the US well supplied with necessary goods at an affordable price. It is an exact parallel of how the Fremen mine spice for the rest of the universe and are barely rewarded economically while the “ruling class” gets rich and maintains power.


The connections between the political and economic world of Frank Herbert’s Dune and our own political realm are clear once the evidence is displayed. The feudal society and monarchy of our medieval era are developed as the government in the universe of Dune. Fast forward to the 17th century and the greatest trade empire of the colonial era and its company are the influence for the mighty Guild of Dune. And finally, the working class of the developing world from the post-colonial to modern era continue to keep the developed countries at the top economically, just like how the spice miners fuel the entire Imperium. With all of this history combined with a setting of the far future, the political and economic setting of Dune is an excellent combination of creativity and a reflection of our own past.


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