A different time comes

When I was younger I read many of Frank Herbert’s Dune series of books. Though there was a notable decline after the first installment (or at least diminishing returns), I read the whole original series (and follow-ups), so I must have enjoyed it to some extent. I’m not really a completist, as such.

But an aspect of the world-building always bothered me.  The societies just seemed highly regressive, and that truly bothered me. My problem is best illustrated by the title of God Emperor of Dune. It struck me as almost sacrilegious that in the bright and shining future humans would still have emperors, whom they worshipped as gods. That they would organize themselves in such a hierarchical manner. The whole idea struck me as…Bronze Age!

“Everyone” knew, after all, that liberal democracy, and in particular the American flavor, was going to be the future. There would be changes on the margin, but the general structure which would allow humans to flourish had been established. We were at the end of history. We had figured out how best to be human.

As a young person, I simply did not reflect on the fact that every age, and every place, takes its own values and preoccupations for granted. And, people of every age and every place cannot imagine a different scenario. We are always at the center of the universe’s story, no matter who we are and where we are. But the reality is that no one truly has a privileged place. At some point, the eternal equilibrium will arrive. But not this day.


13 thoughts on “A different time comes

  1. There is a deep, pan-human, hormonally-expressed program that requires territorial expansion. For that is how you maintain hormonal (enthusiastic) support of your local constituent polis, so that you may continue to rule. Not “economic” expansion. Not “cultural” power. We’re talking raw, see-it-on-a-map, turf. For turf yields nubiles.

    I leave it to another commenter to find the analogous passage in Machiavelli or in the writings of his ancient-China strategy-sage counterpart.

    Russia and the U.S. reached their respective territorial maximums at, say, WW2. Maintaining 700, or whatever number it currently is, army bases globally isn’t the same as owning. Now it’s China’s turn to ‘reclaim’ its territorial/nubiles ‘destiny’. Accompanying will be the usual necessary intellectualish ultimately incoherent rationales. Same as it ever was, no matter the planet humans inhabit.

  2. A few tentative, long and rambling, and probably fleeting thoughts on the topics:

    1) That probably echoes a lot of experience I think of people of a similar generation and sci-fi tastes as a child/teen in encountering Herbert’s Dune. Certainly, interstellar monarchies were already a worn conceit of sci-fi before Dune (and even more so subsequently), but Dune placed them in what was meaningfully our far-future (via dramatic irony and distant reference) and articulated them with a perhaps more authentically monarchic / aristocratic mindset than other versions (that is to say that Herbert tried to provide them with verisimilitude and plausibility, rather than used as outlandish anachronism for artistic effect and exotic colour). And Dune’s prominence made it more likely to be the iteration of this idea that we’d encounter first.

    I’d also say it’s probably Herbert’s intention that you would regard this as anachronistic and “wrong” though, since I think he is trying to sketch out an argument against heroes and heroic charismatic leadership. The Dune books are providing a dystopian vision. He could’ve smoothed it and made it more palatable, and idealized but he intentionally did not (his God-Emperor is intentionally some kind of huge, self-despising posthuman monster and not a human). He’s certainly clever enough as an author that this wasn’t unintended.

    2) On where this intersects with recent politics, they do seem of course to be relatively discrediting on the late 20th century confidence in the superiority of meritocratic selection over dynastic and patronage politics, and of election to 5 year terms over succession by inheritance without term limits.

    Meritocracy’s promise was replacing an established class and an established set of family networks with the brightest “of the people”, who would act effectively for popular benefit, independent of a class and family affiliation. But it seems to have created instead a (fairly hard-to-like) close-knit class and family network of its own, which is mostly animated by its own interests, or which is just a recapitulation of the old family networks in new clothes. If animated against its passion, then only according to its own burgher and academy instilled aesthetic preferences and notions of universal justice and rights, not anything much to do with ideas of fulfilling a particularist duty to a people.

    (These may not be a problem that the “meritocracy” created, but what simply happens in “cores” over time, regardless of system. Possibly people in dense cores with high connectivity simply have more incentive and opportunity to engage in shifting, fragile, non-local, cross-cutting alliances which scale poorly, or fracture frequently. However the fact of it remains that embracing meritocracy maybe doesn’t really seem to do what may have been hoped to “help”.).

    The fact that talent as ‘realized’ in the meritocracy seems to flow in family networks more than we may have thought also leads to the question of whether the old fashioned patronage and dynastic politics was really all that incompetent (at least compared to “actual existing meritocracy”), and wouldn’t have been a lot more competitive on efficiency with access to the same tax base.

    I would still expect, the mass mobilization republic will win out (its strengths are not just a presentist bias, but a real advantage), and that electoral politics to discipline leaders away from corruption and self interest and determine popular assent to policy are the better way to manage a mass mobilization republic. But regimes like Vajiralongkorn’s Thailand (a regime moving towards being a modernized absolute monarchy allied with the military) look less anachronistic than we would have thought they should by 2020?

    Bonus link – Gibson on the change in our ideas of the future and the decline of the idea of the future – https://phys.org/news/2020-01-sci-fi-author-william-gibson-future.html

  3. One of the things which (in hindsight) has been impressive about Dune is simularity between the “gender roles” of Bene Gezerit / Navigation Guild and evolutionary psych (at least as how i percieve it). The two groups appear to be the perfect embodiment of the extremes of the gender spectrums.

    There were the all-female Bene Gezerit and their obsession with breeding the perfect man. Their opposite were the Navigation Guild whose brains were the ultimate expression of a focus on things and science. The two groups were the polar opposites of the [male/things] -> [female/people] spectrum. Or as expressed in terms of autism research: systemizing / empathizing spectrum.

  4. The original Dune series is my favorite sci-fi. When I was younger, I loved the triumphalism of the first book. Revenge! A secret tribal army! Space martial arts! Blood loyalty and devotion! Destruction of the corrupt old order! What’s not to like?

    It’s only when I became older that I grasped the profundity of Herbert’s exposition on heroes (the second and third books) – that a hero “afflicts” his world and grossly distorts it. It’s when I read and understood this that I became a Burkean conservative.

    By the way, being a God-Emperor is a crushing burden and a sacrifice, not something to enjoy. And people need pain, suffering, and oppression to know the fruits of freedom, autonomy, and self-determination.

    Kids have it good these days and don’t want to leave home. I was oppressed (lovingly, but harshly) and I couldn’t wait to have my own roof and be the master of my own domain. It’s something I keep in mind about my children. I inflict suffering on them, though it pains me greatly, for the same reason. It’s difficult to calibrate the right amount of suffering (too much can crush some souls), but I try. #agoge

  5. I REALLY need to read this series at some point of time. Looks like quite of few of the fictional franchises that I follow were inspired by it.

  6. I am a good deal older than Razib. I read Dune in the 60s. I thought Dune was excessively drugged out and way too infatuated with tribal life. It was sort of the science fiction version of Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan”. Both were very 60s. I got over the 60s soon enough. These days we read Anthony Trollope and Jane Austin.

  7. Meritocracy’s promise was replacing an established class and an established set of family networks with the brightest “of the people”, who would act effectively for popular benefit, independent of a class and family affiliation. But it seems to have created instead …

    Maybe noblesse oblige was a real trait and the meritocratic movers and shakers lost that trait.

  8. Meritocracy exists in a republic when voters vote for it. If enough votes go to differing values, corruption, or stupidity, there is no more meritocracy.

  9. I guess one has to define what they mean by “merit” and meritocracy. The problem with the current so-called “elites” is that, for one, they are really not that competent and did not get where they are through pure merit and competence, but rather through connections and cronyism. One can (and I do all the time) criticize these people without calling into question the concept of merit itself.

    That people play social games with each other to get status and material benefits seems to be rooted in human nature. As such, it is likely an intractable problem. We cannot solve it. We can only minimize its impact on those of us who either are not a part of the so-called elites or those who merely seek autonomy and the ability to live their lives on their own terms. I believe the only partial solution (because a perfect solution is impossible) is political and economic decentralization as much as possible. This suggests a system of minimal government, but one with effective anti-trust capability as well as a minimal social safety net for those who happen to be down on their luck. Frederick Hayek proposed such as system shortly after the end of WW2 in his book “The Road to Serfdom”. This is one of several reasons why I am even more of a Randian libertarian today in my 50’s than I ever was in my 20’s. I have discovered, to my dismay, over the past 30 years that the people I thought were smart and competent are anything but. So, who the f**k are they to tell me what I can or cannot do?

    The problem with any centralized social structure that is explicitly non-meritocratic is that it is profoundly silly to expect intelligent and competent people to defer to people who, by definition, are less intelligent and competent than the aforementioned. I fail to see how someone can be silly enough to think of such a scenario.

    The only example of a successful semi-autocratic system that I can think of of, either today or in history, is Lee Kwan Yue’s Singapore, and that is definitely a meritocracy. At least its the only one I would want to live in (if they were to want me, which they don’t).

    So, if you neo-reaction, alt-right, or other kind of political types who look for an alternative to liberal democracy, Singapore is the only example you can cite as an alternative.

  10. The reason our meritocracy does not work as well as it could, and I’m far from the first to point it out, is that it’s not a meritocracy. It’s a plutocracy. As well, it has no civic engagement requirement that would bring different classes together in their youth to help build mutual respect. And finally, a parliamentary democracy would allow more merit to rise to the top from different groups in a diverse country.

  11. I don’t believe that there is any question that we have meritocracy, even though it can be gamed at the margins. I don’t believe that there is any question that the whole of society has been the beneficiary of the innovations and accomplishments that came from the freeing up of the individual. The problem is that we seem to have few good approaches to the problem side of individualism. We need to get the technocratic managerial class and the other elites to make better decisions for the whole. Appealing to their self-interest by convincing them that they “need” lower classes is dubious because I’m not sure that they need us anymore. The SJWs truly want to “help” the lower classes. The problem with them is that they have married the example based “City on a Hill” approach with the totalitarian forced conversion model. In addition, they can’t see actual groups differences that may cause problems because they can’t visualize any approach that doesn’t begin with the individual. Their “emotional” desire to help is gummed up by their universalism and individualism. I don’t see a way around them. I guess we just have to hope that effective altruism and open borders will somehow work.

  12. ”We need to get the technocratic managerial class and the other elites to make better decisions for the whole.”

    Iffen is right, I was writing too quickly, we do have a technological meritocracy by and large (though even this is somewhat undercut by H1-B techies), but not so much a political meritocracy. Regarding technologists, in the past, the uses to which technology could be put were constrained buy a shared ethical worldview, or at least an enlightened understanding of history, which perhaps was instilled in tech students by the traditional humanities courses which were part of their core curriculum, leading to a balanced respect for the individual, family, and community, not a worldview based on some jejune revolutionary fervor, like postmodernism and intersectionality. (Yale University is no longer offering a Western art history course, btw.) Interesting discussion between William F. Buckley and Anthony Burgess up to minute 17:12 on these points, though Burgess, a lifelong teacher and university lecturer, cannot quite put his finger on it… (it was December 1972): https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=G9yo0WS5t2c

  13. The past and the future disagree on many issues but on what they agree is that they need to torment the present(the present as in a general time period when the new knowledge and the old clash). Until eventually a synthesis is reached, maybe soon we in the Catholic Roman West, which has globalized itself for five hundred years, will see the emergence of the new Augustus.


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