Popular SF narratives like Dune play a central role in white nationalist propaganda. The alt-right now regularly denounces or promotes science fiction films as part of its recruiting strategy: fascist Twitter popularized the “white genocide” hashtag during a boycott campaign against inclusive casting in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But Villeneuve’s film seemed to provoke greater outrage than normal because Herbert’s book is such a key text for the alt-right.
Dune was initially received as a countercultural parable warning against ecological devastation and autocratic rule, but geek fascists see the novel as a blueprint for the future. Dune is set thousands of years from now in an interstellar neofeudal society that forestalled the rise of dangerous artificial intelligences by banning computers and replacing them with human beings conditioned with parapsychological disciplines that allow them to perform at the same level as thinking machines. Spaceships navigate through space using the superhuman abilities of psychics whose powers are derived from a mind-enhancing drug known as melange, a substance found only on the desert planet of Arrakis.
The narrative follows the rise of Paul Atreides, a prince who reconquers Arrakis, controls the spice, and eventually becomes the messianic emperor of the Known Universe. Dune was first published in serial form in John W. Campbell’s Analog Science Fiction and Fact and, like many protagonists in Campbell-edited stories, Paul is a mutant übermensch whose potential sets him apart from everyone else. He turns out to be the product of a eugenics program that imbues him with immense precognitive abilities that allow him to bend the galaxy to his will. Paul’s army also turns out to be selected for greatness: the harsh desert environment of Arrakis culls the weak, evolving a race of battle-hardened warriors.
In the fascist reading of the novel, space colonization has scattered the human species, but what Herbert calls a “race consciousness” moves them to unite under Paul, who sweeps away all opposition in a jihad that kills 60,000,000,000. For the alt-right, Paul stands as the ideal of a sovereign ruler who violently overthrows a decadent regime to bring together “Europid” peoples into a single imperium or ethnostate.
Dune ranks as one of Richard Spencer’s favorite novels; although Spencer styles himself as a prep these days, he got his start in geek culture. Early in Spencer’s career as the public face of fascism, he hosted the Vanguard Radio podcast, where he regularly performed close readings of science fiction texts with other reactionary intellectuals such as Counter-Currents editor Greg Johnson. A typical episode might devote an hour and a half to commentary on Stanley Kubrick, Alan Moore, or Christopher Nolan.
Just as Marxist critics have long searched for subversive elements hidden in mass culture, Spencer and his co-hosts interpret speculative narratives to find racist and antiliberal messages that are otherwise unspeakable in a liberal democracy. As Norman Spinrad suggested, fans are willing to accept a narrative about strongmen exterminating alien hordes when it is presented in fantastic form.
During the Dune episode of Vanguard Radio, Spencer joined Johnson and John Morgan in a lengthy dissection of Herbert’s novel alongside its 1984 film adaptation by David Lynch. Johnson, who had recently blogged about the book on his website, likened the world of Dune to the utopia laid out in Guillaume Faye’s Archeofuturism: European Visions of the Post-catastrophic Age.
Faye was a member of the Nouvelle Droite, a French ethno-nationalist tendency that combines continental philosophy and anti-globalization sentiment with a right-wing blood and soil agenda. Faye’s didactic science fiction novella features an ethnically cleansed Eurosiberian Federation ruled by a Faustian elite. Their native genius for planning and prediction allows these overlords to direct the disruptive forces of technoscience while still maintaining traditional social forms. These figures are not purely technocrats: Faye sees them as realizing fantasies and dreams drawn from the aesthetic dimension. They are creators of speculative fictions.
The Faustians live in futuristic urban enclaves, but the masses dwell in low-technology peasant villages that follow the comforting rituals and rhythms of pagan antiquity or medieval Christianity. Both Faye’s and Herbert’s worlds represent impossible attempts to square the circle of fusing the destructive dynamism of capitalist modernization with the stable order prized by traditionalism.
Beyond a shared affinity for space-age aristocrats, Faye and Herbert see the sovereign as one who is capable of disciplined foresight. Drawing on the Austrian School economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, many thinkers on the alt-right believe that only men from genetically superior populations are capable of delaying gratification and working toward long-term goals. The alt-right asserts that white men hold an exclusive claim over the future. According to these white nationalists, science fiction is in their blood.
Fascists are repulsed by actually existing modernity but enamored with its innovations. To resolve this dilemma, they claim that capitalism’s expansionary and self-revolutionizing tendencies are actually inborn properties of the white race. In what Moishe Postone would call the capital fetish, white nationalists insist that capital’s propensity to break through every limit and remake the world is merely the external manifestation of a Dionysian drive or Faustian sprit infusing Aryan blood. Conversely, fascists displace all of capitalism’s negative qualities onto racialized others — especially Jews — who are blamed for the anomie, atomization, and alienation of modern life.
Although this fantasy springs from a disgust with capitalism’s tendency to sever enduring bonds and uproot local cultures, Paul does not offer his subjects the organic community often counterposed with modernity. As Joshua Pearson has shown, Paul acts like the ultimate neoliberal subject. He is a ruthless entrepreneur with the flexibility to exploit even the most speculative of opportunities. Creative destruction is part of his appeal. Some reactionaries are willing to accept the most punishing of regimes as long as they share the privilege of white skin with the CEO.
Fascist ideologues argue that this future-orientation flourishes under dictatorship. Democracy, they claim, rewards politicians who give the people what they want right now in the form of welfare handouts, but only monarchical rule produces leaders who can resist popular demand in order to husband the resources required to build a cathedral over the course of centuries or plot a course to the stars.
We see these ideas reflected in Dune. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood who bred Paul’s bloodline for prescience submit him to a kind of deadly marshmallow test to determine if he is fully human. One threatens to kill him with a poisoned needle (the gom jabbar) if he removes his hand from a device that produces the sensation of burning pain. Restraining his immediate impulses is only the first step toward using his precognitive abilities to choose between all the possible timelines. As in fascist doctrine, Paul’s ability to envision the future is a biogenetic trait possessed only by the worthy few.
Paul’s foresight helps him defeat a shadowy conspiracy including the Spacing Guild and the House Harkonnen, figures the fascists characterize as greedy parasites representing either Middle Easterners or Jews. Once his antagonists are out of the way, Paul uses this ability to carry out a multi-millennia plan for civilizational renewal that requires him to sacrifice billions. As he worries about his grim destiny, Paul begins to look like the Nazi Einsatzgruppen who pitied themselves for being forced to endure the difficult task of committing mass killings to build the thousand-year Reich.
When Spencer and his co-hosts engage in seminar-style discussions about Hegelian and Heideggerian themes in Herbert, we cannot forget for a moment that their political program necessarily ends in genocide. When Spencer presided over the Unite the Right rally that ended in Heather Heyer’s murder, he allowed the polite mask to fall long enough to reveal that even the most erudite or fanciful aspects of his public persona are motivated by a will toward brutal violence and racial domination.
For this reason, many on the alt-right are drawn less to Paul than to his darker clone in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the God-Emperor of Mankind. Warhammer 40,000 is a British miniature war game that melds Dune with other science fiction influences such Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. The God-Emperor of Mankind rules over an empire of hyperbolic cruelty that fans have come to call “grimdark.”
Although the game is clearly tongue in cheek — often falling in the same satirical tradition as 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd — many misanthropic young men missed the joke and used the setting instead to play out their macho fantasies of dominance and submission. Matthew Heimbach, who founded the Traditionalist Worker Party and built an alliance between Neo-Nazis and Klansmen, radicalized himself in part through his devotion to the Warhammer 40,000 game world. In 2016, alt-right partisans circulated memes with Trump’s face pasted onto the armored body of the God-Emperor of Mankind, casting themselves as fanatical shock troops willing to die in his service.
Although the alt-right often finds inspiration in futuristic science fiction, they do of course look to the past as well. As Alexandra Minna Stern demonstrates, many fascist intellectuals believe that time is cyclical or nonlinear, which means that archaic elements from previous eras might recur again once more when the present epoch is over. Frequently the alt-right draws upon popular media set in ancient history or pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds to try to convey what this might look like. Frank Miller’s 300 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim have become key inspirations for geek fascists.
Here we see that the alt-right is organized around a fan practice as well as an ideology. They build their fascist utopias by appropriating, remixing, and reinterpreting science fiction and fantasy texts. From Gamergate to the Hugo Awards controversy, geek fascists struggle to make inroads into fan culture. The alt-right fights so hard over these genres because they want to lay claim to imagination’s potential to transcend the here and now.
Any speculative text that contains Jews, Muslims, or people of color therefore becomes a threat to their entire political project. This is why recent developments in fields such as Afrofuturism and Black horror are so crucial. They provide a critical alternative to the alt-right’s exterminationist fantasy of an all-white future. Just as importantly, they offer readers other ways of thinking about time that do not fall in line with the fascist dream of a history that unfolds step-by-step along the lines of the Aryan dictator’s master plan.
Even the alt-right’s favorite novel does not seem to support their misreadings. Herbert’s book is often deeply conservative, but by the fascists’ own admission it presents a syncretic vision of the future in which cultures and populations have clearly intermingled over time. Paul’s army of desert guerillas, the Fremen, clearly owe something to Arabic and Islamic cultures, and Paul’s own genealogy defies the fascist demand for racial purity. The alt-right has tried to wrestle Islamophobic and Antisemitic messages from the book but they are stymied by its refusal to map existing ethnic categories onto the characters.
Fascist commentators also overlook that their long-awaited sovereign Paul begins the series as a tragic character but ends it as a grotesque one. Herbert himself saw the series as a critique of authoritarianism demonstrating for his readers that “superheroes are disastrous for humankind.” Dune’s aristocrats replaced artificial intelligences with people deformed to act like soulless machines. As Paul becomes the guidance mechanism for a vast social system, he loses touch with humanity. Seeing the terror he has wrought, he plots to end his own despotic command over humankind’s fate. The God-Emperor in Warhammer 40,000 does not get this far: he is locked in suspended animation while the empire he built decays around him. These are obviously not ideals worth emulating.
Fascists seek to tame class struggle and humanize capitalism by grounding it in a shared racial destiny, but they only end up enacting a program that leads to a more barbarous form of inhumanity.
Spencer did not immediately comment on the new trailer, although he still clearly thinks about Dune. He recently likened social distancing to a gom jabbar test that determines who is worthy of life. Counter-Currents, however, excoriated Villeneuve’s Dune based on a point-by-point rundown of the racial makeup of the cast.
Distorted as these fascist readings of Dune may be, Herbert’s novel will remain a persistent feature of alt-right culture as long as they fight to conquer the future.
Jordan S. Carroll is a Visiting Assistant Professor in English at the University of Puget Sound. He is the author of Reading the Obscene: Transgressive Editors and the Class Politics of U.S. Literature (forthcoming, Stanford University Press).