A good teacher can make you think. A great teacher can make you recognize that your very assumptions may be wrong. By that measure, Doug Dowd was a great teacher.
You’ve probably never heard of Dowd; history has kind of passed him by. But he was a prominent critic of capitalism, especially unrestrained capitalism, and an anti-war activist before it became fashionable. He was a mentor to folks who became famous, or at least infamous, including Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked The Pentagon Papers.
In 1970, he gave a series of guest lectures at the University of Oregon. Dowd has just been named by the U.S. House Internal Security Committee identified Professor Dowd as one of 65 “radical and/or revolutionary” campus speakers. As you might expect, the lectures were packed. Dowd’s premise was that capitalism required expansion and exploitation. He argued that the Cold War was less a necessary response to contain communism than a strategy to spread capitalism. The war in Vietnam was one of his examples. It led him to serve as co-chair of the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
It was the first time WC had heard a non-Marxist critique of capitalism, and it had an impact on WC’s world view. Dowd was especially critical of the unthinking belief that economic growth was a panacea for all of the world’s woes. But what really frosted Dowd’s cookies was the unthinking, uncritical consumerism of the West. Some of his examples:
Item: “Americans spend more than $8 billion a year on cosmetics – $2 billion more than the estimated actual total needed to provide basic education for everyone in the world.”
Item: “Americans and Europeans spend $17 billion a year on pet food – $4 billion more than the estimated annual additional total needed to provide basic health and nutrition for everyone in the world.”
Item: “Europeans spend $11 billion a year on ice cream – $2 billion more than the estimated annual total needed to provide clean water and safe sewers for the world’s population.”
Facts like those make it hard to defend unrestrained consumer capitalism.
It’s impossible to summarize completely the nineteen books and countless papers Dowd wrote, or a lifetime of teaching, but he asked us to think of this:
All this can be put another way. Most of the people of all the rich countries now work very hard – even harder – to pay for things that add little to the meaning or satisfaction of their lives. In doing so they contribute to a socioeconomic global system that has already ruined countless lives and that threatens to end all life. Many thoughtful and decent people think there is no reasonable alternative. But there is. And if not now, when?
You can get an introduction to Dowd’s thinking and writing in his on-line essay, “Capitalism and Its Economics, available here. It’s worth your time.
R.I.P. Douglas Fitzgerald Dowd, 1919-2017.