Theory of Shit

In Volume III of Capital Marx has a little section discussing the utilisation of ‘waste’ (Abfällen) in the production process. Capitalists search for economies at the best of times (i.e., when they gloat over ever greater extraction of surplus value) – but this becomes more urgent for them when the costs of production increase, by agitation or because of rises in the cost of raw materials. Nothing worse than an event that jeopardises rates of profit, hence protections, tariffs, search for new cheaper sources of material, associations to regulate production, and so on. These are joined with technical innovations, streamlined organisation, adulteration of products to stretch it further, cut corners, various dodges and wheezes and all manner of gains (the wheezing is of those who must work longer hours).

Maybe waste is not always the best way to think of this, or rather it should be thought of more fundamentally, faced more explicitly. Felton Shortall at Goldsmiths last month talked of Marx getting on with writing his ‘economic shit’. I’ve not yet tracked down that reference, but was amused to find on page 77 of the English translation this discussion:

‘The same is true of the second big source of economy in the conditions of production. We refer to the reconversion of the excretions of production, the so-called waste, into new elements of the production process, either of the same, or of some other line of industry; to the processes by which this so-called excretion is thrown back into the cycle of production, and consequently, consumption, whether productive or individual … It is the attendant abundance of this waste which renders it available again for commerce and thereby turns it into new elements of production’ (Vol.III:79-80 L&W)

‘Exkremente’ is the word Marx uses, which is then termed Abfällen in the gloss, ‘so-called waste’. There is something to be said for a critique of recycling that would need to be raised here – I am not anti-environmentalism except where its bosses’ environmentalism – an ideology of productivity gains will not save the planet. Here the recycling is a consequence of increased production as industry expands, and is a direct consequence of the capitalists interest in off-setting the rise in cost of raw materials (perhaps because uppity suppliers of such materials wanted a better deal for their stuff). Whatever the case, the consequence of Exkremental production recalls Marx’s discussion in Volume I where the bread the workers got to eat was shown – by those heroic factory inspectors, such as the immortal Leonard Horner – to be adulterated with all manner of gunk- eg., sawdust, chalk, and worse:

‘Englishmen, always well up in the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist, or landlord, or sinecurist, is commanded to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, but they did not know that he had to eat daily in his bread a certain quantity of human perspiration mixed with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, dead black-beetles and putrid German yeast, without counting alum, sand, and other agreeable mineral elements’ (Vol.I:249 Intnl Pubs)

There then follows an extended discussion of the working conditions of bakers (hungry Marx – later he dwells on a recipe for soup!) and of the adulteration of other consumer products. As he also does later on in Vol III, here he notes that waste products find their first uses in medicine: – according to Parliamentary Commission reports on the adulteration of means of subsistence, even opium was found to contain wheat flour, gum, clay and sand, with several of the examined samples containing ‘not an atom of morphia’ (Vol.I:601n). Bad quality drugs is still too often the rule.

The discussion of waste in Volume III has to do with large scale production and economies at a time where needs must ‘force’ the capitalist to find ways to maintain rates of profit amidst various constraints or while necessarily expanding production – [we are very soon getting to crisis theory and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall etc.,]. I am entertained here to observe that discussions of excrement often come at times of impending crisis and capitalist paranoia.

So I think this excrement-crisis linkage could be claimed as basis for understanding the turn to shit in some of the work of, say, Georges Bataille (World Wars, depression), or Dominique Laport (1960s France, 1968 as a whole – all that horrid tie-die). In popular culture too – Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket springs to mind – ‘you will find yourself in a world of shit’ as the Marines trudge through the wasteland they made of Vietnam – and in the 1980s Salmon Rushdie’s Padma the dung-lotus asks: ‘what’s the point of all your writing-shitting’ (Midnight’s Children). [Another time I need to go back to read Artaud – ‘my woks are only waste-matter, once they leave my body they cannot stand up by themselves’ in Derrida Writing & Difference].

But do we have a satisfactory theorist of shit who can relate it to crisis and economics? What is all the discussion of pollution, climate change and carbon footprints telling us today about our decrepit world (what’s a carbon footprint if not code for something else?). Mick Taussig’s book Defacement looks closely into the pan to reveal the public secrets at stake – we all shit, we don’t discuss it (but some turd has nicked my copy). Maybe I want a theory of rubbish that treats this global muck. A waste processing theory, a sewer-age. All too predictable (regular) I am sure, but what a wonderful world in which we live.

5 thoughts on “Theory of Shit

  1. benjamin rosenzweig says:

    As I recall, Engels talks about shit in his discussions of the gold economy in Australia. In German but I’m sure that was the word used in the translation I read. I’ll see if I can track it down. And of course Bataille had his ‘excremental philosophy’.


  2. Tom says:

    Hi John,

    Apparently “the economic shit” crops up a few times, but I found a post somewhere on the net that takes it from a letter sent to Engels in early April 1851: Unfortunately, the text has ‘stuff’ instead of ‘shit': “I am so far advanced that I will have finished with the whole economic stuff in 5 weeks’ time” – but maybe its worth checking the translation. Couldn’t find anything at all at through searching Marx’s letters under “the economic shit”


  3. Biswadip Dasgupta says:

    Rosdolsky in his “The Making of Marx’s Capital” page 3 refers to Marx’s letter to Engels, 2 April 1851. ‘I am so far advanced that I shall be finished with the whole of the economic shit in five weeks. And when that’s done I’ll draft the economics at home and throw myself into another science in the Museum. It’s beginning to bore me. At bottom this science has made no progress since A.Smith and D.Ricardo, however much may have happened in investigations into particular topics, which are often of extreme intricacy.’ (MEW Vol.27, p.2I8.)


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