The Encrypted State
Delusion and Displacement in the Peruvian Andes
David Nugent



The Routine and the Remarkable in State Formation

States, if the pun be forgiven, state; the arcane rituals of a court of law, the formulae of royal assent to an Act of Parliament, visits of school inspectors are all statements. They define, in great detail, acceptable forms and images of social activity and individual and collective identity; they regulate, in empirically specifiable ways . . . very much . . . of social life. Indeed, in this sense “the State” never stops talking.
—Corrigan and Sayer, The Great Arch (1985)

CIRCA 1950 the military government of Peru, under the leadership of General Manuel Odría, undertook a project of truly massive proportions. Mobilizing the collective resources of virtually the entire state apparatus, the regime mounted a campaign of vicious persecution against APRA, Peru’s most important political party, which was regarded as a dangerously subversive threat.1 In the Chachapoyas region of northern Peru the campaign failed, precipitating a (temporary) crisis of rule. Officials came to believe that they were incapable of carrying out even the most basic of government functions, especially those concerning surveillance, conscription, and taxation. Furthermore, officials came to believe that their efforts to govern the region were being thwarted by APRA, the party they themselves had forced underground, by means of the most brutal repression. In accounting for the failure of their own efforts to govern, officials attributed to APRA a subterranean party apparatus with all the powers of state that their own regime lacked—and then some. Indeed, the political authorities came to view their administration as a pale imitation of a sophisticated, complex state structure located somewhere deeply underground. They could not actually see the subterranean party state to which they attributed such power and influence. They were certain it was there. But because APRA insisted on remaining hidden from view—on remaining precisely where government officials had left it—the authorities could not actually find APRA. As a result, they were left to imagine the contours of their invisible enemy.

The plague of fantasies (Žižek 1997) that swept through the Chachapoyas region at the beginning of the Odría regime is reminiscent of other “panics” that have seized hold of the Peruvian population. The most recent of these was during the early 1990s, when the Shining Path—which appeared to be on the verge of seizing control of the national government—warned that it had “a thousand eyes and ears” that watched and listened (Mayer 1991).2 Like the Sendero episode, the earlier one that involved APRA generated the most extreme of responses on the part of the authorities. As time passed government officials became increasingly fearful of those around them. Initially, their concerns were limited to groups already considered of dubious loyalty—radical teachers, outspoken youth, rural Indian cultivators. As the plague of fear spread, however, government officials came to have doubts about the most unlikely of suspects—children in elementary school, members of girls’ volleyball teams, even staunchly conservative elements of the landed elite. As officials became increasingly paranoid, the “radius of doubt” with which they operated became ever broader and grew to include more and more of the population. The circle of people who could be trusted became ever narrower, to such an extent that government officials came to question the loyalty of other government officials. Indeed, the authorities went to great lengths in what proved to be a futile effort to purge the government apparatus and society writ large of the nefarious influence of APRA.

At the very height of the epidemic of fear, government officials came to feel deeply threatened by the Party of the People (as APRA referred to itself). They also came to suspect that the Apristas were closing in around them. In response, the authorities sought to build an unbreachable cordon of security around themselves that would guarantee their safety and autonomy in the face of an all-pervasive danger. The creation of such a zone of safety, however, was no easy matter, because the Party of the People appeared to be everywhere. So “close” did the authorities consider the party to be that in order to protect themselves, they took an unprecedented step. They abandoned the outer domain of the state to the party and attempted to inscribe a new inner frontier between state and subversive. They did so by encrypting the state. A select group of high-ranking officials, who (initially!) regarded one another as completely trustworthy, took to communicating amongst themselves in coded messages. Their goal in doing so was to ensure that the prying eyes of APRA did not penetrate into the inner sanctum of rule.

But as those within the security cordon came to distrust one another, even this precaution proved insufficient to protect the state from the party. When it became clear that measures designed to ensure absolute secrecy and security were of little use against APRA, government officials came to feel ever more exposed, ever more vulnerable. They also became increasingly distrustful of those around them. No one was above suspicion.3

Ultimately, the authorities came to fear those they relied upon most—their own police force (the Guardia Civil). As the boundary between state and subversive dissolved, officials came to believe that the police had been thoroughly infiltrated by the Apristas. So distrustful of the Guardia Civil did government officials become that, as a general policy, they recommended to the central government that all police be transferred out of region every two years, lest they be “contaminated” by the highly odious nature of local political sentiments (i.e., by APRA). But the authorities went further still: they refused to take the constabulary’s repeated assurances of loyalty at face value—even though government officials insisted that such assurances be made.

So fearful did the authorities become that they concluded that the assurances offered by the police were the very opposite of what they seemed. Government officials concluded that the Guardia Civil were merely disguising their secret underground activities behind a mask of commitment to the preservation of the social order. The authorities also concluded that the police were only biding their time, were waiting for the opportune moment to strike, so that they could seize control of the region on behalf of the subversives. In light of this very dangerous state of affairs, the authorities in Chachapoyas appealed to their superiors in Lima for armed reinforcements. No one was to be trusted, they asserted. Everyone was an Aprista.4

The “State” of Theory

This work draws upon these paranoid and delusional dimensions of rule in Chachapoyas to rethink the dynamics of state formation. Existing state theory is ill equipped to explain developments such as those outlined above, in which government officials experience a crisis of rule. State theory is similarly ill disposed to explain the official response to Chachapoyas’s midcentury crisis of rule—in which the authorities project into being a dark and dangerous counterstate that could not be seen with the naked eye. This is because the central question that guides much of state theory (and much of state practice!) is that of order. How, scholars have asked, has it been possible for states to establish and reproduce order, regularity, and routine (or the illusion thereof) in social and political life? This is regarded as an especially puzzling problem in light of the enormous inequalities that are found in virtually all parts of the contemporary world, and the role of state processes in reproducing them.

The scholarly community has addressed this problem in several different ways. Many scholars have sought to explain the persistence of order (or the illusion thereof) in highly stratified societies by drawing upon Enlightenment-based understandings of power as a repressive force. They have stressed either the monopoly on coercion that states are said to exercise (which is at times [Agamben 1998] framed as “sovereignty”), or some combination of coercion and consent. Others scholars have sought answers to the question of order by drawing on post-Enlightenment perspectives (especially those of Foucault) on power as a productive force and emphasize processes that may be broadly termed “governmental.” Whether the focus is on the repressive or productive dimensions of power, however, the existing scholarship’s preoccupation with problems of order and regularity in political life makes it ill prepared to understand the chaotic, contradictory, delusional, disorganized, and irrational dimensions to the dynamics of rule—the kinds of developments that are the focus of the present work.

Were disorder, delusion, contradiction, and irrationality exceptional, there would be little reason to pay them any mind. However, they are anything but: they are both normal to and inseparable from official efforts to order political life. The pervasiveness of disorder, delusion, and contradiction is especially significant because these forces are generally understood as exceptional—as if they were aberrations from a purportedly normal state of affairs. This tendency to label disorder and delusion as exceptional and inherently foreign to the activities of the state is shared by scholars and politicians alike.5

One of my purposes in the present work is to explore the implications of the fact that those who claim the right to rule—and many of those who study this process—represent disorder and delusion as exceptional, as inherently foreign to the activities of the state. The Encrypted State views the ordering claims of state as themselves delusional. The “delusion” extends beyond familiar assertions that the right to rule is based on understandings that are exaggerated, highly distorted, or grossly misconceived.

For one, state claims about order are founded on a contradiction between the interested, violent, and coercive activities that state processes so often support, and official representations of these processes as peaceful, noncoercive, and disinterested. Second, these claims are founded on denying and concealing the contradictions upon which they are based, even—or especially—from those making the claims. As a result, there is a kind of cultural duplicity at work at the very heart of state formation—one that leads to a pervasive “structural blindness.” Because of the disjuncture between the nature of many state activities and how government officials must represent these activities, this duplicity is unacknowledged, and unacknowledgeable.6

The ubiquity of the irrational, the contradictory, and the chaotic in processes of state formation raises another important point. Not only do government authorities treat disorder, delusion, and contradiction as exceptional to what states ordinarily do and are; much the same can be said of the scholarly community that has sought to understand the dynamics of state formation. As I have written elsewhere (Nugent 2010), while many authors acknowledge the fragility of rule and the contingency of state forms (Roseberry 1994; Sayer 1994), most analysts of the state concern themselves with contexts in which organized political subjection has in some sense been achieved (Agamben 1998; Bourdieu 1999; Corrigan and Sayer 1985; Ferguson and Gupta 2002; Gupta 2012; Hansen and Stepputat 2001, 2005; Joseph and Nugent 1994; Scott 1998). Their main concern is with the formation and the operation of “functioning” polities.7

In recent decades, scholars in multiple disciplines have devoted their energies to understanding the peculiar nature of that collective illusion known as “the state.”8 The emphasis of much of this work has been on understanding how states work their “magic” (Coronil 1997; Taussig 1997)—on understanding the processes by which states come to be accepted as real, powerful, and all-pervasive elements of the social world. The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution, by historical sociologists Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer (1985), is among the most sophisticated and influential of works to grapple with this problem. As did Weber before them (1980), Corrigan and Sayer emphasize that the state is not a thing but rather a claim—a claim to authority, to legitimacy (Corrigan and Sayer 1985, 7). It is not only a means by which one group of people subjugates another but also a process by which groups misrepresent what they seek to do. This process, Corrigan and Sayer argue, is deeply cultural in that it relies upon moral regulation: “a project of normalizing, rendering natural, taken for granted, in a word ‘obvious,’ what are in fact ontological and epistemological premises of a particular . . . form of social order” (Corrigan and Sayer 1985, 4; see also Corrigan 1981).

State claims to authority and legitimacy are grounded in culture, but they are violent claims nonetheless. Only by systematically undermining and delegitimating alternative constructions of morality and society can states aspire to make their own assertions collectively shared (or at least tolerated). Corrigan and Sayer invoke Durkheim’s notion of a collective conscience, but they anchor his conception in politics—in struggles over conflicting moral visions of sociocultural order (Corrigan and Sayer 1985, 6).

Although the control of the means of physical violence plays a crucial role in state formation, Corrigan and Sayer emphasize “the immense material weight given to . . . cultural forms by the . . . routines and rituals of state” (Corrigan and Sayer 1985, 5). In other words, the ability to regulate the moral domain is critically dependent on the iterative dimension to state activities. States are engaged in endlessly repeated, highly ritualized, and carefully routinized assertions about acceptable forms of social activity and collective identity. To paraphrase Corrigan and Sayer, states state. Indeed, they never stop talking (see chapter epigraph).

Through its capacity to state, the state seeks to establish itself as the sole, legitimate authority and ultimate arbiter regarding what may be considered true, proper, acceptable, and desirable (Corrigan and Sayer 1985, 10, see also Bourdieu 1999). To the extent that they become authoritative, Corrigan and Sayer suggest, the state’s unending iterative productions—its everyday bureaucratic routines, its formulaic documentary practices, and its magnificent public rituals—establish for it a seemingly neutral, objective vantage point that stands “above” or “outside” the social order, watching, preserving, safeguarding (1985, 10).

In The Great Arch, Corrigan and Sayer seek to understand long-term continuities in the forms and rituals of rule—to grasp how (peculiarly English) state forms endure over a period of centuries. Other scholars have shown an equally strong interest in the cultural dimensions to political legitimation in state contexts. They too have investigated the role of iterative practices—from the implementation of routine, bureaucratic procedures (Herzfeld 1992), to the production and circulation of official government discourse (Hull 2012; Navaro-Yashin 2007; Trouillot 2001), to the staging of elaborate political performance (Kapferer 1988; Taylor 1997)—in establishing the authority of the state, and in generating state effects (Mitchell 1999). Anthropologists in particular have tended to focus on ethnographically observable dimensions to the processes by which states come to be accepted as real.

Ferguson and Gupta offer a fascinating analysis of hitherto unappreciated aspects of state formation. Arguing that the scholarly literature has not attended sufficiently to the ways that states come to be imagined, they examine the “images, metaphors, and representational practices [through which] the state comes to be understood as a concrete, overarching, spatially encompassing reality,” arguing that “through specific sets of metaphors and practices, states represent themselves as reified entities” (2002, 981–82).

Among the most important of these metaphors, the authors suggest, are “verticality,” the idea that the state is above society, and “encompassment,” the notion that the state encompasses many localities.9 To convey how the state comes to be imagined as above and beyond, Ferguson and Gupta present a fine-grained, thick description and analysis of everyday bureaucratic routine—the “mundane practices [that] often slip below the threshold of discursivity, but profoundly alter how bodies are oriented, how lives are lived, and how subjects are formed” (2002, 984). They show how verticality and encompassment are reproduced in the course of people’s ordinary encounters with state administration. Like Corrigan and Sayer, they are ultimately concerned with how the processes they identify contribute to the legitimation of rule—how these processes help states “secure their legitimacy . . . naturalize their authority . . . and represent themselves as superior to, and encompassing of, other institutions and centers of power (2002, 982).

Other scholars concerned with how states come to be imagined as natural and real parts of the social environment have focused more directly on the role of discursive practices. A case in point is Yael Navaro-Nashin (2007), who builds upon Corrigan and Sayer’s notion of moral regulation to consider the ways in which states structure affect (Laszczkowski and Reeves 2017; Stoler 2002). Noting that “state-like structures make themselves evident to the persons who inhabit their domains in the form of materialities” (2007, 94)—and that “[d]ocuments are among the primary paraphernalia of modern states . . . are its material culture” (2007, 84)—Navaro-Yashin explores the role of official documentary practices in statecraft.10 “[T]he document (or letter),” she observes, “is an emblematic site for the operation of . . . statecraft” (2007, 84).

So powerful is the aura of authenticity and the implicit demand for accountability embodied in these documents that they have the ability to generate the most intense forms of affect, especially among those living in the margins of the state (Das and Poole 2004). Official state documents, Navaro-Yashin argues, act as state fetishes.11 They “are phantasmatic objects with affective energies which are experienced as real” (2007, 81). How important are official documentary practices to the crafting of states? “If documents seem more benign than the police, I would argue that from the point of view of the affects they generate amongst those who deal with them, especially from marginal positions, they are not” (2007, 83).

Other scholars have focused more systematically on the role of fantasy and performance in constructing states as real, powerful, and all-pervasive elements of the social world. Among the most influential to explore these realms has been Diana Taylor, in her book Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s Dirty War (1997). Taylor’s original and penetrating analysis draws on performance theory to show how the armed forces transformed Argentina into a vast “theater of operations” for the cleansing of the social body and the formation of the state.

Taylor focuses in particular on the military’s violent reorganization of the visible and invisible realms of Argentine society. The assault on the former sought to establish the armed forces’ mastery of the visible domain—to make public and private space available for inspection, as it were, to make it wholly transparent to the military gaze. The armed forces employed strategies intended to convey to the general population the existence of a general state of surveillance from which they could not escape—much like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (Taylor 1997, 96). From this all-seeing vantage point, the military sought to rid society of the various social ills that plagued it.


1. APRA is the acronym for the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (the Popular American Revolutionary Alliance). APRA was formed in Mexico City in 1924 by Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, a university student who had been exiled from Peru because of his role in uniting the labor movement and the movement for university reform (Stein 1980; see also García-Bryce 2010, 2014). Haya de la Torre established APRA in the ferment of postrevolutionary Mexico (Flores 2014; Spenser 1999). He called for the nationalization of land and industry, affirmed solidarity with all the oppressed people and classes of the world, and gave great emphasis to anti-imperialism (Haya de la Torre 1973).

Aprista cells formed spontaneously in highland urban centers (see, for example, Glave and Urrutia 2000; Heilman 2006, 2010; Nugent 1997; and Taylor 2000) in 1930–31, as Haya made plans to return from exile to participate in the presidential elections of 1931. The party continued to be very influential in the decades that followed.

2. For a fascinating analysis of an episode of panic from the colonial period, see Silverblatt 2015. See also the classic social science literature on moral panics, especially Cohen 1973; Hall et al. 1978; McCluhan 1964; and Young 1971.

3. I show that government officials communicated and acted as if they were fearful and distrustful of those around them, and I document regularities in the process by which they communicated and acted on the basis of unfounded fear and distrust. The irrationality of the government’s response to APRA is reflected in the following: during some periods officials ignored real threats that confronted them, while in other periods they imagined into being threats that were not actually there. They also operated with an ever-expanding radius of doubt about who they could and could not trust. During periods of maximum suspicion, officials communicated and acted as if they had doubts about virtually everyone—even (or especially) those who professed the deepest commitment to the regime. I make no claims about the inner feelings of government officials. What is clear, however, is that these officials acted and communicated as if they were fearful, distrustful, and ultimately paranoid. My interest is in how they acted and communicated rather than in how they felt.

4. The official fears of APRA discussed in Chapter 2 of this volume unfolded in a broader Cold War context of fears of international communism. Indeed, the regime of General Manuel Odría, which led the assault on the Party of the People, referred to members of the party as APRA-Comunistas. This is ironic considering the longstanding and bitter animosity between the Peruvian Communist Party and APRA (for important treatments of this broader Cold War context, see Grandin and Joseph 2010 and Joseph and Spencer 2007). But the conflict between Odría and APRA is not the focus of this volume.

5. Scholars of early modern Europe (Naphy 1997; Ruiz 2011) have examined the role of affective forces (in particular, fear) in governing processes. As interesting as this work is, however, it tends to reproduce a binary between early modern states, whose irrationality is not exceptional, and modern states, which are irrational only when ruled by despots (whether “Oriental,” “sultanistic,” etc.).

6. See Mbembe (2003) and Polanyi (1944) for insightful discussions of the more or less obligatory use of liberal discourse in official representations of state activity.

7. See Chapter 9 for a discussion of works on state formation that engage with phenomena such as disorder, fear, and paranoia in everyday encounters with government officials.

8. There is of course an alternative literature on state-related issues—one that views the state as an institution, or series of institutions—and seeks to understand how the state-as-institution came into being. The literature is vast, but influential works include Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol (1985); Fried (1967); Mann (1986); Miliband (1969); Poulantzas (1975); and Tilly (1985, 1990).

9. See Ferguson (2004) for a similarly subtle and fascinating argument, one that suggests that academics have been complicit in reproducing this vertical geography by accepting the state’s claims to be above society. Ferguson’s critique of the notion of “levels” resonates strongly with the work of the Manchester School (Vincent 1990).

10. Navaro-Yashin makes it clear that she is referring specifically to Western European statecraft, or alternatively to “the Euro-American paradigm” (2007, 84). Other important work on state documentary practices includes Clanchy (1979), Goody (1986), Hull (2012); Messick (1993) and Navaro-Yashin (2002, 2006).

11. Gordillo (2006) provides an insightful discussion of the role of documents as state fetishes among indigenous people in the Argentinean Chaco.