In the Dino de Laurentis version of Dune, based on a much more complex Frank Herbert book of the same title, this quote is a central driving force to the plot said by a mad man who has to milk a cat every morning for the temporary antidote to a poison that runs through his veins. He is the Emperor of a corrupt kingdom and a downtrodden people. In the film he is potrayed as a violent, insane, tyrant and everyone in the universe is afraid of the violence of his people, the Harkonnens. In stark contrast to the Harkonnens are the rest of the “families,” rulers over their perspective planets and members of the Space Guild that controls all interplanetary travel through the use of Spice. House Atreides in particular is pushed into the spotlight as the type of benevolent rulers that the Harkonnens can never be. And yet as the story unfolds, we discover that the peace between the families is upheld by the intermixing of the families, so that in fact, the Duke’s beloved Jessica is from House Harkonnen.
The careful watchers of the film, and/or readers of the book, will also note that the universe these families inhabit is a feudal system in which they are above those classes and peoples designated to serve. The entire system is bound up in beliefs about people’s inherent traits, including “goodness” and the “right to judge.” It is upheld by acts of violence requested or simply intuited by the House Harkonnen as much as by acts of amelioration by the other houses.
The inequality of this system is never more obvious than when House Atreides arrives on Arrakis, the only place in the universe that produces the spice necessary to fold space and maintain the Guild’s power. The indigenous people of Arrakis, the Fremen, live in caves subsisting on their own bodies recycled water while Guild families rotate control of the planet to preserve their peace and power. The planet is mined without concern, and most times compassion, for its people. And House Atreides lives in a castle, with cooled air, running water, and libraries, talking concernedly about the plight of the Fremen.
The surface level narrative of the film’s story is one of good vs. evil in which Harkonnens attack Atreides for control of Arrakis/Dune. They are the aggressors. Underneath the surface is a story about corruption in which the entire Guild is implicated. The Guild controls the families through marriages, inheritance, and appointments to lucrative positions. One such marriage and appointment would have ensured that house Harkonnen, which the other families vilify as much for the mining labor they do that fills them with poison as the acts of violence that help uphold the system of power, could have gained some respect and power. However that union is thwarted by the selfishness of house Atreides. While Harkonnen agression to right the agreement they have all signed on to, Atreides betrayal is merely the stuff of strong worded concern amongst the houses.
Peel away these layers that remain perpetually focused on the mechinations of those at the top, and you suddenly see the caste system which links birthplace to service position and/or complete marginalization. On Arrakis, the servants are Fremen who live their lives in elaborate underground caves on the edges of their own world while the Guild exploits their planet. They are feared and reviled. While the houses except certain groups into their homes to teach and care for their children or train them to fight, the Fremen are unwelcome. House Atreides is seen as extra-benevolent b/c they allow Fremen to work as maids in their home.
Dune is a story of oppression of a people and a planet for the riches of the few. In this system, the “good families” are no less likely to make decisions based on power and control than the “bad” ones. Where they differ is both in the tools they use and their sense of themselves as innocent. Harkonnens use violence and they know neither they nor anyone else is innocent. They oppress both b/c they can and b/c it is their role in the Guild. Atreides uses liberalism – relaxed social rules, kindness to the servants, moderate concern about the people beneath them’s lives and families, and intellectualizing about inequality and brutality – and think this makes them innocent of ruling over and marginalizing others.
When the “good families” are “betrayed” by the other classes, they are horrified b/c they have “welcomed them into their homes and their lives.” This welcome never grants the same amount of privilege or shared governance, and in the case of the Fremen it’s tinged with fear and distrust. Somehow, these liberal intellectual leaders have failed to understand that maintaining their lifestyle and unequally integrating difference challenges nothing of import in the struggle for equality.
When the families come together at the Guild, or when they meet to make decisions about the universe, much of the discussion is about following the rules. Seemingly levelheaded people question those who do not follow the rules all the while making their own attempts to amass more power. Some even excuse these attempts by saying that it will lead to more benevolence in their rule than if they do not rest power away from the more prominent families. And all of the families are asked to ultimately fall in line to ensure that power remains in their hands. Ultimately, all of the houses do fall in line when base is threatened, not b/c they see themselves as power hungry but rather because they believe that what they are doing is right and good for everyone. At no time during these meetings does anyone consider an alternative way to rule, to free the enslaved or marginalized, to give women back their reproductive rights and right to love, or to create a system based on actual equality. Both women and men in the houses are ultimately committed to retaining their sense of comfort against those who would challenge it.
Some days when I am reading blogs or walking from one meeting to another, I find myself thinking “S/he who controls the spice, controls the universe.” Whether the world is virtual or real, there are some people who believe they have the positions they hold b/c they are right and good and not b/c they were born on a planet with water and books instead of poison and deadly creatures. Often, like Guild meetings, the way they think has been behind closed doors, but the sign of their privilege is never more obvious as they carry sense of “right” and “good” into the public domain of the internet daring to silence others who breech their fragile peace with talk of inequality. They do so with the violence of the Harkonnens under the benevolent facade of Atreides. They tell themselves it is for everyone’s good and that those who dare to speak or think differently are threatening the work they are doing to change the system. Yet the true nature of the system never actually changes under their rule.
In the film, the Fremen rise up and take their planet back. The spice exchange comes to an end.
In the book, no such revolution occurs. Instead, Herbert gives us a trilogy where heroes become false prophets, hope is corrupted by power, and people who promised to change the system of rule go insane or disappear. Spice production continues. And “S/he who controls the spice [continues to] control the universe.”