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The mystery of capitalism is doing things with documents


In this post I analyze briefly why the mastery of documents is a necessary art in the age of technology. Documents are indispensable for the very existence of capitalism and it is how we express our own capital. However, the nature of documents (their ‘ontology’) is quite complex but it can be easily understood with a bit of curiosity and perseverance. Finally, I will consider how to apply the lessons learned in order to maximize the impact of your own capital.



The title of this post is basically a combination between two titles The mystery of capital and “How to do things with documents”. The first is a book written by the Chilean economist Hernando de Soto (1941), which is a cornerstone of the economic development in the third world. Instead, “how to do things with documents” is a Barry Smith’s slogan which is a paraphrase of the John Austin’s philosophical masterpiece How to do things with words (1962), which was the first attempt toward a philosophical foundation of the speech acts. For instance, saying “check” in the appropriate time and circumstance count as an action on the chessboard. Smith is a philosopher that “left the mothership of philosophy” to land to something different, something closer to computer scientist than anything else.

Smith discussed the topic of how to do things with documents in several places which can be found freely on his YouTube channel. He issued a paper with the same title.[1] Now, this brief post will just consider what I have personally learned about this topic throughout my personal experience as part of the academic bureaucracy and coordinator and director of the diary and register of the philosophical association “Azione Filosofica” (Philosophical Action). Basically, as part of at least three academic institutions (Universtià Vita-Salute San Raffaele – Milan as PhD student; Università della Calabria – Rende (CS) as invited lecturer and part of the organizational committee – Intelligence Lab; Dublin City University – Dublin as assistant professor) I was part of a big bureaucracy in which, of course, I was just the tip of the iceberg and I had to perform several institutional and bureaucratic activities considered sufficiently important to be part of my official duties. Instead, as Co-Founder and Coordinator of Philosophical Action, first I was appointed to create an inner bureaucracy about which I had to know the details to boost the association’s efficiency. Second, I was officially appointed as Director (Di) of the established Diary and Register (Diario and Registro – and then the acronym DiReDi stands for the Director of the Register and Diary). This was an essential path toward the institution of a more bureaucratized activity, which is essential for the creation of capital, whatever it is. Indeed, ‘capital’ is an elusive term whose nature is not necessarily financial, but it is necessarily related to documents and documentations. This is why I started saying that all this analysis is inspired by both de Soto & Smith ideas coupled with my own understanding of free market economy grounded on readings of classic of economics such as Hayek, Freedman and Marx.

This post is devoted to those of you would try to improve their visibility and to understand how to perform better inside an organization whose nature is, at least in part, bureaucratic. If you are living in a neo-capitalist society, you will need an efficient documentary system to certify your values. Instead, if you live in a neo-socialist society or in a totalitarian one, then you simply live inside a gigantic bureaucracy in which everything is based on a complex system of documents. As I am an Italian, I live in between the two and, according to many, if there is an Italian system, it is closer to the latter than to the former. Then, I am writing this as a personal reflection over what I learned during my six years’ experience inside a gigantic bureaucracy which is our Matrix.

The essence of capital

Capital is not a natural thing

The essence of capitalism is how to translate action into certified words which can be shared among the rest of the society. Capital is mainly something extremely abstract which does not lay onto natural things. There is no such thing as ‘capital’ in nature. As far as for once I am not a philosopher here, I don’t have to recall a long tradition to justify my views and I am giving you, the reader, only my vision and, possibly, my arguments. So, to say that capital is not a natural thing is to say that you cannot find in nature alone something comparable to it. Think about a universe which is like ours but without humans or any human-like entity (that is to say something able to speak and to think semantically). What should the capital be in such circumstance? I help you: not much. However, capital is not even about human beings as such.

The origin of capital

Capital pops up only when humans start to have needs, goals and expectations inside world in which goods are scarce. In such a world the goods must be created or invented through a process and, as we will see, process is a four-dimensional thing, which implies capital. Not all the processes imply the creation of capital but some of them necessarily determine it. Then, humans are just a precondition of capital, but they are not sufficient to create it. How comes? To explain this fascinating point, I need to introduce you to an imaginary scenario taken directly by the Bible, but its concept is free from religious connotations whatsoever as it will be immediately clear.

Adam and Eva in the Eden without capital

Adam and Eva were in Eden, which was a place in which they didn’t need to create goods because Eden was a place in which all the goods were already present and available. Think about it. A modern conception of Eden is simply a possible world in which what you desire is already there. You simply need to take it to use it! What a wonderful place! You don’t need a job to earn money because money would be useless as far as everything you desire is simply at your hand. It would be a quite boring place but, for sure, it would be the most peaceful place of all. Nobody would need anything by anybody and then it would be also useless to speak! What would you need to communicate in such a world? Ok, then, a world Eden-like would be simply the peace of the body and then of the mind. That’s why such a place does not determine the existence of capital. Is everything is already in place as you need, what is left to do? Not to work as famously work is a curse in the original story, the way God punished Adam for eating the apple.

And the revised tale and the origin of capital as the way shaping the world

Let’s add a simple feature to Eden, which is entropy. Eden is a perfect place in which everything works according to your desire because everything you need is already there. You don’t die and time is a mere register of what you decide to do. Time is so meaningless because there is no need to do anything and nothing really changes. But what happens if we start to put some friction in the Eden? Eden disappears like a cloud in a windy day. Let’s introduce just one variable in the equation: the goods are not already there and without those goods, whatever they are, you die. Time starts to be more interesting and it matters more to you because it starts to measure the human ability to endure in such place. So, there is a new condition: you need to transform the world to survive or, at least, to survive as you wish. If you have the very intention to survive, then you need to transform the world because it does not give you the means to live. This is the very beginning of the history of capital. Indeed, once you need to transform the world, you then need to take a raw thing in order to change it in something suitable to your needs/interests. This process of transformation is not physically free of charge: it takes time and that time is subtracted to something else. In addition, the transformation must follow precise rules because the nature of that thing is resistant to your desires as we already noted adding the simple facts that the goods are not already present in nature. The organization of the process is required to be sufficiently efficient to benefit by the transformation of the good. This means two things. First, that all such transformative processes are indeed unnatural. They do not happen in nature. Second, that those processes are in fact induced by the human organization, which is determined by abstract ideas and concepts. This informational side of all transformative process is where capital arises.

The capacity to transform the world according to our desires

Strictly speaking, indeed, capital is the mere capacity to transform the world according to our desires first and foremost by our own imagination and language. However, this is a very primordial stage of capital, where it is only based on a single mind expression of informational needs to solve a problem. Essentially, capital is an abstract formulation of problem solving. However, once capital starts to exist, then it starts also to grow in a great variety of forms, which are all the forms through which the humans (or any similar rational being) are able to represent and store the information required by the problem solving. Writing down the way you solve a problem changing the world is capital itself. For this reason, capital starts to flourish when there is an efficient recording system which is able to store and retrieve the critical information needed by capital to exist. This is a collective dimension in which the first formulation of the capital is already part of the society. It can be shared; it can be communicated, and it can be destroyed by eliminating the information stored. Capital is abstract but not without conditions of existence.

Very well, so what? If this sounds very abstract, we are coming to the funny part in which you will see how to create capital through documents. Hopefully, what I will do here is just showing you something already inside you. Something about which you never thought!

How to create capital through documents and why it is not an easy thing to do

A system of documents to grab the capital into the real world

Capital is not necessary a document and that’s why we survived in the pre-literal age. In the simple vision of capital I defended, capital is basically the organizational structure needed to solve a problem. Therefore, every intentional process whose goal is to transform a raw good into a finished good requires and implies capital. That’s why you can sell a project, which is the way you explain how to deal with an open issue important for another person. In this very sense, capital is an abstract object which exists in time, that is at least in the mind of who has the expertise for solving a problem. Then, capital is not like a number – let’s say 1, because 1 does not exist in time or we can think sufficiently reasonably that it doesn’t – we can imagine a world made by numbers without humans and things. We cannot do the same with capital! There is no such place for capital in universe without minds and bodies. Well… What is needed to grab capital into the world is a system of representations such that capital can be depicted, first, and certified, second. This requires a system of documents which enables certification of those documents.

What is a document?

A document is a way to translate words into a thing. This is the essence of a document. The words are not counted as merely words. They are part of a complex social object such that words are the bricks and the final object is a thing comparable to a table, so to speak. As bricks are not divided into different parts of a house, a document is not divided into words but in its registering sections. Indeed, a document is a thing that stands outside the mind of everybody and its nature is sensible to causal relations similar to those necessary to change things in the wider world. Indeed, a document can be registered, and it must track this ‘registration’. So, when you take a form and you fill it, that form exist in a specific time frame – a day/month/year. This put time into the paper, which is no more an abstract entity. Time is there, directly inside the document. Second, the document is inscribed inside a place, possibly very specific because there is a way to state that that document was indeed created inside a very specific space circumscribed by spatial boundaries whose existence depends by social agreements (and then even space, in this documentary sense, is a social object not more arbitrary than a form). The space is put inside the document creating the space-time of the document. In addition, the document is always filled by a specific person. In this respect, language is considered as an object (ink, a sound…) that must be created. Supposing that all the humans shut up and would be unable to record their language in any way, language as such would exist in their mind (supposedly) but it would cease to exist in the world. This means that if we disjoint the language from its meaning, the equation is not zero but it remains something, a sheer natural fact of some sort. This “fact of some sort” has the same nature of a table: it is produced by a causal chain, it exists outside the minds and its existence is real, that is independent by any particular subject. Then, there are two components of a document and one of it is its merely factual nature. So, the document must track the origin, which is to say ‘the author’. The ‘author’ of a document is simply like a sculptor. It does not matter what is writing (meaning) inside the form. The only important thing is that that document is originated by his/her act, whose nature lays on the laws of nature. Strictly speaking, when you fill a form, you are literally changing the world factually and this is true anyway. So, every document needs to put inside it the identity of the author, which is, of course, often based on other documents but this would be unnecessary with only one exception. Every document must have the author’s signature. The signature is first ‘certificate’, the primordial seal! Indeed, the signature is unique for each person as far as nobody can naturally have the same signature (or we can think it is very unlikely, so much that we have to force our imagination into different possible worlds). A document must be put into a certified time and place (the more precise the better) with an appropriate track of the signature. This would be sufficient to have the ‘bare base’ of the document. However, there is at least another important component we must consider.

The certifier as the difference between a document and private letter

Every document must be recognized by a different ‘institutional person.’ This means that a document is not a self-declaration, a private letter or whatever. A document is essentially a public affair, a social object. Then, its existence requires the existence of, at least, another part that recognizes that document as valid. Then a document is essentially based on two parts. The first is the object created by the author who filled a form (which still counts as a private act). The second is the process that translates the private act into a public act. This requires a different ‘institutional person.’ I am not saying just ‘person’ because the same person can be two different ‘institutional persons,’ that is two different social roles. If I am the CEO of an enterprise, I don’t have to ask to anybody to firm my documents because as author I have the right to write my document and as president I have the right to approve my own statement. In the ordinary case, the author is usually different from the ‘certifier’ exactly because a third party would like to be reassured that that piece of paper is not a private statement but is, indeed, recognized by somebody else publicly. Again, the document must track the process carried out by the certifier with an appropriate mark, which could be a signature or a stamp (and the process could be infinitely reiterated with stamp to approve stamps etc). This is because, again, the document is the strive to create an object which is intersubjectively existent. Then, if a third person reads the document he/she can see the tale of that document: ‘I was created (filled) by Mr Pili, the day 05/03/2020 in Sestu (Ca), Italy etc., who signed the form with his signature and the certifier also recognized that I am appropriately created in the day XX so much that he/she marked me as approved.’

The curriculum vitae as the expression of potential capital

Then, an interesting consequence here is the CV. What is it? A CV is the way into which a person is translated into a document and, in this very sense, my CV is my potential capital, potential only because to translate it into reality I need a process which, usually, involves another person or, even more ordinary nowadays, institutions (firms, enterprises etc.). Then, to make a CV meaningful, I need to be able to track all I have put into it, that is to say, a CV is not a private act because everything into it can be certified by someone else. This is a fundamental point and it must be fully understood. A CV is useful only if it can be approved by some other means. These means are other documents, let’s say a reference, a contract etc., otherwise it is only a list of private statements. They can be truthful but, as we have already seen, truth and meanings are not important unless they are part of the documents as registered facts. In this sense, a CV is a document that redirect the reader to other documents which are certified by others (certifiers).

Representing the capital as capital

We have already seen that capital is an abstract thing that exists in time. My own capital can be represented in my CV through language broadly understood. If I am a photographer, I can show my photos as facts – to be certified, of course. Then, the ability of representing my own capital is part of the capital and it requires skills and ability, mainly an appropriate mastery of the language. What do I mean with this? I give you an example. I organized a conference in Milan, and I can write in my CV

– I organize a conference in Milan – 15.06.2019.

This is something. It states something happened and tracks the place and day and the author. It says something I have done. But this is a way to ‘downgrade’ my capital instantiated in that circumstance. I want to show why. Organizing a conference requires a lot of different parts. Basically, first I have to decide the topic, then finding the speakers, and a room. Booked the room and established the speakers, I must supervise the process. I have to ease their work asking for abstracts and their own presentations (e.g. slides…). I have to prepare the room before the speakers come in and I have, possibly, to advertise the event, preparing invitations, media appearances etc. Finally, I have to set the room and, maybe, I have to present the speakers, chair the panel and ease the process of Q&A. Probably, to do all of these, I need other people and I have to organize them, coordinate them and help them in doing their job. Then, I can say something more interesting:

– I organize a conference in Milan – 15.06.2019. I selected scientifically the topic and decided who were the best potential speakers to address it. I coordinate the group of people of the conference (speakers (Tom, Dick and Harry), partners (publisher, firm 1, firm 2…) and staff (Louise, Alfonse etc.). I was responsible for the media appearance (here and here). During the day, I supervised the staff and I chaired the panel and I was the speaker of “…”.

As you can see, simply through this statement I can describe my capital in detail: scientific selection (topic), scientific selection (speakers), fundraiser & partner liaison, media appearance, staff supervisor, chair and speaker. These are all responsible roles and I make the point that I was diligent and scrupulous. In addition, and importantly, the two different descriptions are both truthful, they are not frauds. But if you have a look on them you realize immediately the difference. To give you a concrete example, I report here the official description of that particular event which is certified by Philosophical Action:

DUTIES = Since the inception of AF, Pili oversighted several cultural projects already accomplished or ongoing.

15.06.2019 – Milan – Room inside NATO Detachment – Pili organized the conference “Intelligence beyond the cold war” along with the book presentation “The cold war”. He wrote the project, coordinated the partners & promoters (Le Due Torri, Azione Filosofica, InTheCyber Group, and Mr Andrea Molinari referent for the Room inside the NATO Detachment), the speakers (Mr Andrea Molinari (CEO – MilanoEdit), Mr Claudio Selleri (Le Due Torri – Publisher), Mr Paolo Lezzi (CEO – InTheCyber Group), Mr Alessandro Giorgi (Italian Society of Military History), Giacomo Carrus (President, Azione Filosofica) and myself (Azione Filosofica)). During the day, Pili was also the chair of the panel “Intelligence beyond the cold war”, and speaker “Intelligence as an institution of democracy”.

This statement is part of the letter firmed by the president of AF and it was the simple shortcut of another official document of the association. Now, to capitalize your capital is not required to involve contracts or employments. Instead, it is required your ability to show your skills in a certified way, that is through documents, which implies their logic…

Capitalizing your capital through money

The problem is that it is not easy to master the art of capitalize your capital. To be clear, to translate your capital in money is a completely different thing and it requires more conditions than that. Indeed, in this respect, translating capital into money requires your capital into action in which the certification of that action implies an exchange: your capital for money. The money exchange is much less of all the capital you have, and it involves just the translation of it needed by the other part willing to pay just for a portion of it. The pre-condition of capitalizing the capital through an exchange of money and funds lay in two different components: (a) the fact that you are able to maximize your own capital through an appropriate representation of it. (b) that you can certify your statements. These two conditions are the usual, general conditions for creating documents and it explains why there is no universal CV. Different calls and different jobs require different potential capitals and you must recognize it. So, the first and most important ability required to increase your own capital is the complex semantic capacity to divide your capital in simple components, recognize all different parts of it and find the best words to describe it. To be very clear, this is not a way to invent a tale. It is a way to describe appropriately what you are from a capital point of view. Once you have translated your own self in this way, then you must learn first the documentary vocabulary (how to express in jargon your capital already described in your own words). And then you must learn to translate and speak with partner’s vocabulary. First, you must learn the other’s vocabulary to speak to the interviewer in a way that he/she understands that what you are able to do in his/her own language. Second, you must learn how to speak to your own colleagues and employers (peers and chiefs). This is something that people take for granted once they are hired but the inability to learn the jargon is also the reason they often feel excluded by the ‘system.’ The great majority of people are not able to translate themselves inside the documentary system they live because they do not understand the logic and they do not learn the jargon. And this is why my own perception was (and still is) that the average person – from skills and mental attitudes – is the best to suite the job market. They are feed through the mechanism to be an automatic part of the mechanism. After all, capitalism is simply a way to transform raw goods into finished goods and then it must follow the rules of nature to be efficient. Then, the reality is that this does not require a great intellect but only the ability to fit a mechanism which is blind as the solar system mechanics. But, after all, if only great minds would work, capitalism would not exist, and the human race would have been extinct since a long time.

Making something through capital

The CV example is just an instance of a more general process. To make your career available to yourself you must first and foremost stop thinking about the daily activity. You must first learn what documents are needed for your next steps and how you can fill the forms appropriately to certify your improvements. To be clear, this should not be done in the wrong way, that is to say starting from documents and coming up with activities. It should be the other way around, that is starting by doing what you think is the best thing to do and then translating it into capital. However, probably, you will discover that this selection process would increase your accuracy, understanding what really matters to you. Coming from a place in which nobody teaches how flourish inside the capitalist society, I had to rush to learn myself about these things and, probably, I am still learning how to craft this art. However, this is much about creating capital and capitalizing the potential capital you already have. To be clear, documents do not create nothing about you but you are near to be nothing without them and capitalism is about exploiting documents to create a huge mechanism in order to create processes to change nature from a raw good to a finished one, which is what we need to live. Maybe there are different systems to create goods, but no system can survive without capital(s) – the ability to solve a problem. And, once the capital start to be put into existence by different people and different people start to find ways to work together, there starts the need for documents. The more the complexity of the system increases the more documents are needed to put the capitals into existence. And creating a document is a part of that capital we need to survive to the jungle which we created from nature in which we delude ourselves with fairy tales about predictability and rationality where, after all, the human beings are still animals grown up from the dust of a difficult planet and careless environment in which nobody really knows why but only know that wants to exist for another minute, minute by minute.


Arp, R, Smith, BD & Spear, AD 2015, Building ontologies with basic formal ontology, The Mit Press, Cambridge Mass

De Soto, H., (2002), The Mystery of Capital, New York: Basic Books.

Friedman, M., (1962), Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Smith, B. 2012, “How to do things with documents”, Rivista di estetica, p. 179-198

Smith, B., & Mark, D.M. 1998 “Ontology and Geographic Kinds”.

[1] Smith, B. 2012, “How to do things with documents”, Rivista di estetica, p. 179-198

Giangiuseppe Pili

Giangiuseppe Pili è Ph.D. in filosofia e scienze della mente (2017). E' il fondatore di Scuola Filosofica in cui è editore, redatore e autore. Dalla data di fondazione del portale nel 2009, per SF ha scritto oltre 800 post. Egli è autore di numerosi saggi e articoli in riviste internazionali su tematiche legate all'intelligence, sicurezza e guerra. In lingua italiana ha pubblicato numerosi libri. Scacchista per passione. ---- ENGLISH PRESENTATION ------------------------------------------------- Giangiuseppe Pili - PhD philosophy and sciences of the mind (2017). He is an expert in intelligence and international security, war and philosophy. He is the founder of Scuola Filosofica (Philosophical School). He is a prolific author nationally and internationally. He is a passionate chess player and (back in the days!) amateurish movie maker.

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