The Razor’s Edge of Politics: Notes on the Meaning of the Encryption of Power by Addie Wagenknecht (2014)

The original theory of the encryption of power was formulated by Gabriel Méndez-Hincapíe and I in an article published in Spanish in 2012. In the following years, several panels regarding the theory where held at the Critical Legal Conference, in 2014 at the University of Sussex and in 2015 at the University of Wrocław, Poland, with another one organized by Enrique Prieto and Lina Cespedes coming up in this year´s conference at Warwick. The concept has also been debated amply in other forums such as the last three meetings of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, among others.

In what follows I will procure a simple outline of the core meaning of ‘encryption of power’ that may shed light on its focus, but primarily on the concreteness of the concept and how it deeply reconfigures and sharpens the intimate links between power, politics, democracy and difference.

The Encryption of Politics

‘To be is to exercise power’ is the frontispiece of the grand edifice of Western philosophy, nevertheless, once inside it, we understand that every effort has been directed to find ways to deactivate beingness through stringent normative limits for the exercise of power, where “to be” is to be submitted to particular forms of power. Since Plato, politics is predefined through extenuating conditions of belonging to the body politic, where “to be” corresponds to an already existing qualification of life, the ‘idea’ as an inner split within forms of identity where some are welcomed into politics and some are excluded according to qualifications that are detached to beingness but to which beingness must conform to be[i]. Hence the relationship between power and life is severed, qualified and utterly standardized to favour particular models of identity. The hidden origin is the malleable metaphysical center of Western discourse. The qualification of life and the reduction of its abundance and multiplicity to pre-established models has been the setting of the Western strand of power positioned at the crossroads of capitalism, colonialism, coloniality and Empire. We have thus a first definition of potestas: potestas is the negation of power through the stratification of the conditions to exercise power. The element that above all defines potestas is the arrangement of systems of identity through the permanent construction of transcendent models to define life.

The perseverance of models of identity means two interconnected things: first, politics has served as a harsh demarcation line of life, and second, that to belong to a body politic, any agent (before becoming a subject, before being a being, before exercising difference) must conform to the qualifications of identity set forth by an invisible (transcendent) model. Thus, language always lays afar from the communication of subjectivities, and the hidden model is always hovering mystically over language determining it at every phase of its combinations and uses. Politics, as the primal opening of being and the point of definition of language and its meanings (where power above all is a relation) has been captured in stringent models of unity and permanent qualifications of life where hidden logos (an unseen telos as arché) dictates and justifies any and every kind of hierarchy as natural. Insofar, the Western construction of politics survives, as a cardinal mechanism of truth, depending on one thing only, the utter neutralization, if not the destruction, of difference. Bruno Latour uses the term ‘Empire of the Globe’. “It defines an invisible power inside which everything else could be located even though the frame allowing the localization remains totally invisible” (Latour 2016, 314).

The exclusivity of coloniality as power as domination is not only that it qualifies life as a limit of politics, for this would simply offer a tautological definition of potestas. The uniqueness, at least in this latter stage of its jointness with liberalism, is that in order for potestas to occupy the central locus of power it must simulate democracy and thus necessarily encrypt power. Power is encrypted when politics and democracy are detached from each other and democracy is simulated through the construction of false totalities in the meaning of ‘the people’.

The Encryption of Difference

Difference is the essential condition of communication: to communicate is to communicate difference (Tarde’s fractal ontology “to exist is to differ”, 2015). Being exists and can be named and called upon only from difference. Immanent difference announces the breach of the totality, the possibility of meaning without a transcendent context, it supposes the encounter before distinction, the utterance before language, agency before structure. Through the ‘decryption of power’ we will discover that we are only before politics when every being communicates her difference through immanent difference. The ontological condition of politics is that there are absolutely no conditions or qualifications beyond difference to decide what politics means. The latter means that democracy is the only place of politics because it is the non-place where language does not yet mean anything and everything is to be decided. In democracy, no qualification whatsoever, is in place, in order to communicate difference. Democracy, as the only materiality of politics, casts forth the most beautiful paradox of philosophy: politics is the question of all questions, because it is the question of who can formulate questions, of who counts. If philosophy has an essence at all, and no preassigned model of knowledge, no vertebral structure or founding idea, then its driving immanent force is to ask who counts and not what is. Without this question, it is pure mysticism. In these terms justice means that all accounts should be accounted for, or better yet, that there is no reality unless it is the fruition of all accounts.

Insofar, we only have access to the world when we have access to politics. It is impossible to give an answer to politics if the possibility of language remains ‘encrypted’ and its place of enunciation tightly reserved for qualified subjects. The conclusion is simple: the world can only exist through politics, and the only viability of politics is democracy as the order of immanent difference. Encryption is thus the impossibility of politics through the impossibility of language. When politics and language are dissociated and the exercise of power clings on qualifications for the creation and uses of language we may claim that power is encrypted and thus the world as such is a simulacrum. Encryption operates wherever there is exclusion from politics, and power is imbedded as a transcendental concept.

As we are indicating, in Western political theory, almost every scheme that has undertaken the task of thinking power arrives at a transcendental model of man (Cornell and Seely 2014) that imposes an intransigent model of identity as both its pinnacle and base. Nonetheless, on the other hand, the theories that have sought a divergent commitment against unity, identity and metaphysical principles arrive at a proposition of difference which is innocuous, as the lines of flight, the distance put between difference and identity, and between power and politics is so vast, that difference gets trampled in its own irrelevance and weightlessness (e.g. Deleuze 2001; Negri 1999). We are too familiar with the fundamental paradox of constituent power. Any power that is produced in obeisance of transcendental models is not only derivative of domination but the utter cancelation of difference. Nevertheless, difference, that would render constituent power immanent, left to its own devices, is either incapable of forming any concrete polity; or if it forms it, it will do so based on a primary exclusion and a concentration of power, thus becoming, by the very same gest the rejection of immanent difference. The fundamental problem is that difference, deemed under this light, reintroduces transcendence through the back door, where the model of man prowls in the shadows of difference.

The theory of ‘encryption of power’ understands that while immanent difference and domination do not cross paths and confront each other in a constitutive clash, politics, and hence the world as reality, is unattainable. Henceforth, the theory of the ‘encryption of power’ offers an understanding of immanent difference that defeats any ‘metaphysics of power’ anchored on transcendent and hidden models on its own grounds, while at the same time offering a path to garner power through the permanent and infinite exercise of difference. Hence, what is vital to capture, is that the site of the constitution of politics is not immanent difference locked in its own uncommunicable gilded dungeon, but the clash between difference and forms of domination that are hedged in transcendental models of identity. What the theory of encryption of power recognizes is that we must recognize potestas´ fundamental influence of setting the contours of our reality, only then, will we be able to overthrow it through difference. Without this crucial understanding, the struggle for democracy, as an opening into politics, will remain the impotent plight of difference plunging itself into the vacuum of its own immateriality. If difference is to avoid simply trying to fix the hole in the ocean of its own insubstantiality, it must confront the precise geography set up by potestas; decryption is the means to do so. With Viveiros de Castro we understand that “dualisms are real and not imaginary; they are not a mere ideological mirage but the modus operandi of an implacable abstract machine of overcoding” (Viveiros de Castro 2014, 118)

The Meaning of Encryption

When any form of power begins to regularize the access to language and to define qualifications for the encounters of singularities, politics is denied at its core, in such a manoeuvre power is taken out of its free circulation and turned into a ‘power in a solid state’. Encryption is a primal form of ‘solidification’ of power based on the prohibition of the creation, access and uses of any and every form of communication through the establishment of transcendent models and inscrutable languages. Encryption, is finally the denial of politics through the stratifications and occultation of language.Power in a solid state’ is the technology that absorbs energy from the exterior and transforms it to a hierarchization of subjectivities; it is the contracture of all circulation where every relation becomes prefixed. Consequently, the encryption of language becomes the form of politics. Encryption appears in the prohibition imposed on the many to name and understand the world on their own terms, through their own production of differences. Hence, power is manufactured as a permanent qualification of the capacities to name language and politics stands as the inflexible gatekeeper of hierarchies. Opposite to power in a solid state is unstratified power, opposite of totality, an infinite assemblage (in the terms of Manuel DeLanda, 2013).

In encryption, language is erected as a sanitary wall to keep systems of transcendence safe against the infection of the liminal, the outcast, the barbaric, in short to keep the people ‘hidden’ and off the limits of language. This is the ever-present oligarchic spirit that is instilled in philosophy like the skin from which it breathes from.

Since politics can only be considered when every being that makes a difference is considered as the condition of its existence, with no further qualification, then it follows that we cannot even name politics when its meaning is not available to be created by all. Politics is not a precondition of differences, but difference is the precondition of politics. Given this, democracy as the only possible form to define politics also means that the language through which we define conflict and deal with its appropriation must be available to all (it must be decrypted). Through the theory of the encryption of power, democracy is no longer considered as a mere process, and certainly not in a direct correspondence to the rule of a majority, but as an intensity of the ‘being in common’ through difference and the very threshold of the possibility of politics.

No singularity may have a hierarchical hold on language or its use. The latter not only means that language is the first common of the being-in-common of politics, but also that any denial of this principle is an upsurge of power as potestas. The first natural common interrupted and encrypted by potestas is the very possibility of power. When power ceases to be a practice only reverence towards power remains and potestas rises as the divinity of the necessity of force while subjectivity is reduced to servitude.

Therefore, the encryption of power goes far beyond the simple muddling or deliberate concealment of language, which could be solved by simply applying better methods of interpretation that would clarify the obscure or unify the polysemy. The problem is deeper, the conundrum is political. Encryption does not signal an atrophy or obscenity in the system that could just be attuned by better methods and straightened by stronger normative commitments. Rather well, it is the contrary, encryption secures the smooth perfection of a predatory system, and it guarantees the destruction of democracy in its name, with all the horrors imbued in the term: colonization, famine, wars, violence of gender, racism, legal expropriation and the Empire of capital.

Encryption is a primordial prohibition (political, legal, racial) to the access and uses of language where the political lexicon is fully hierarchized and its uses predetermined utterly. Encryption does not consist solely in hiding the true meaning of things, but hiding them in a way in which the meaning becomes a non-meaning or absolute meaninglessness. In the sense that modernity stands for the denial of language as the first common of politics, encryption is not merely a scheme for hiding language but for occluding politics. The problem of language that decryption targets and that fashions its capacity and reach is first, and foremost, a political problem entrenched in language. The main purpose of encryption is to impede the realization of true democracy through the obfuscation of the meaning of every system of communication. What is denied by encryption is the possibility of difference as the regulatory idea of the world.

Nevertheless, what is occluded by encryption is not language itself, but the process of its transmission, the norms by which it operates, the means by which it is distributed, but primordially, the reality to which it refers. What encryption guarantees is an absolute hierarchical social and political control over the areas of conflict that are debatable and the empirical and normative bases that can arise in any discourse. At the end of the meandering tunnel of language what we find is that the scope of the conflict and its resolution has been decided beforehand, and with it, every emotion, proposition and reaction has been fixed and predestined above and beyond our capacity to feel and touch upon language as proper. Hence, encryption is not merely a manoeuvre to muddle language but the operating core (machina) of power as domination.

Encryption, as an intentional hiding of the meaning of language is a characteristic proper to any use of language, no dispute about such fact. Nevertheless, encryption as the means to sever immanence from subjectivity, subjectivity from language, agency from structure and politics from democracy defines the modern domain of power. All communicational forms imply a code, as well as modes of coding and decoding (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 41). Nevertheless, the code is different from encryption, while the function of the former is to organize meanings as strata (hierarchies), the function of the latter is not only to hierarchize, but to hide the strata, in a way that it makes it appear as un-stratified.

Encryption is not a simple problem of one strand of struggle among others but is instead the core problem of politics. Another way to say this is that domination, within the brood of coloniality and liberalism, depends absolutely on its power to deny language as the first common of politics. The impenetrability of language becomes the impenetrability of politics, and the first transmission of encryption is the hierarchy of language. Encryption, then, not only serves the purpose of upending democracy, but it also severs politics as it privatizes it to the sole dominium of experts.

The encrypted text supposes a part that always appears shining in its clarity, wide open in its transparency, waiting simply to be taken, a meaning that is robust and sayable; and an obscure part beyond the regions of meaning, a mirror that coagulates time, that projects no other image but the rigid rule of the law of the status quo. Experts are in a fierce competition to master the meaning and the sense of reality, while at the same time they are its first prisoners. The encryption of power appears when the creators of qualified languages (judges, programmers, sages) become the mouthpieces of power as domination, who design the liturgies of power with the intention of subjecting the interpreters of language (the ‘common’ people) to a fixed and impenetrable reality. Encryption is finally the monopoly of a hegemonic group over reality. The mission of the expert is to transform a political problem into a technical problem and onward into a rigid statute of meanings that are self-referential and sealed off from common language. Power is taken to an inscrutable place where stratums are organized in such a way that they are blind to their own becoming, they become by this gest, metaphysical. Encryption turns knowledge into a simple set of rules that embody the secret science inscribed in it. Encryption is also ever present in the indivisible link between science and the creation of the human, and of sublines and aberrant sub-genres that follow. Science, with its armoured coat of objectivity, publicity of language, and suppression of doxa (opinion), unravels the greatest plot to dominate and takeover any discrete difference. The gest is complete when all the premises of said science are injected into the bloodstream of politics and culture through law and economics that simply claim to be reproducing what the ‘neutrality’ of science has gained in depicting the universe, from the basal to its static structure of its predictability and order. From this point, to settle once and for all, what is distinctively human is just a matter of the intervention of the technicians of power. The theory of encryption discovers a coordinated play between science and politics, science sets the universal model of truth of what it truly means to be man, a nation etc. and the technicians of power (lawyers, economists, preachers) apply it ex-post facto to create a perfect technology of domination.


The purpose and main target of decryption is not to subvert meaning as if there were a primordial and pure meaning laying at the bottom of the ocean of language that is merely ciphered and must be recuperated at all costs. There is no Alpha meaning smothered by encryption that we must unveil as if something primordial had been abducted and re-signified, and thus overturning the construction would reveal not only the caveat but the inert truth. Decryption is not about extracting the true meaning out of a proposition controlled by a given context, but finding out how that given context, that ‘language game’, was built through a primordial exclusion of difference. Hence, decryption is aimed at unclogging the production of language, because the production of language is the production of power and the latter the only site of politics. Henceforth, the sole purpose of decryption is to open politics as the place where meaning is yet to be decided. In doing so, encryption recognizes philosophy as an emblematic battlefield of power and knowledge, that must itself be decrypted and liberated from models of identity and unity which have endured throughout its fashioning of the dimensions of the reality of the world. Thus, to decrypt, is to revert exclusion as the primordial form of domination and to rehabilitate democracy as the only conceivable space of politics and the only order of truth

To decrypt power is to reverse the monumental machine of privatization of the commons that carries the de-politization of conflict as its main characteristic. Therefore, decryption means not only a critical or semiotic tool, but fundamentally the primordial act of liberation and the first exercise of politics. To decrypt is to render language possible, it is to recognize that power as domination depends solely in the blockage of the access to politics. What decryption seeks is that a community garners a sense of herself not in the debris of language, or the wavering fragments of an image, but the very possibility of language to obstinately reinvent itself anew. Decryption proves that any claim to a universality of language is simply the result of hegemonic tongues erected through violence to stand as the absolute judge of every other language. In this sense, decryption does not produce a final result, a synthesis, but the opening of the possibility of conflict in language. It is not then an amalgamation of language that decryption seeks, but to serve as a log of dialects and jargons, as a coming together in difference that deciphers and ordains thought and speech through immanent engagement and the recognition of conflict. Decryption is thus not a tabula rasa, a translator of sorts but the razors edge of language, the intercessor of politics and democracy, where we can declare the nakedness of language and the discreetness of our broken genealogies.

Insofar, decryption, -far from being a ‘new method’ or another analytical theory of language-, is substantially the theory of justice immanent to democracy. Through decryption we do not only perforate the thick constellations of the lieges of modernity in order to find the ‘hidden treasure’ of reality, to unearth what has been mysteriously buried, or to transgress a fixed binary semiotic system, rather well the act of decrypting itself is the original act of liberation, the putting forth, and becoming of democracy.

decryption must forge a new poetics, a new political spirituality (Cornell and Seely 2014); because without spirituality science is a blind adscription to facts; religion is dogmatic fanatism; art becomes inexpressive and philosophy is sustained as the annulment of difference. Decryption is not the world unveiled, but the world re-imagined, written with a new light and a new intensity. Its function is not merely to discover an original text, but the knowledge that the latter is yet to be written, furthermore, that its writing is an infinite task of difference which shudders the very possibility of a final point of any text.


Ricardo Sanín Restrepo is a member of the Caribbean Philosophical Association and a professor of legal and political theory at several institutions across Latin America, including Universidad Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), Universidad Central de Quito, Universidad San Luis de Potosí (Mexico), PUC Rio de Janeiro, and Universidad Javeriana in Colombia, among others.

[i] In the words of Martin Heidegger “Because the idea is what really is, and the idea is the prototype, all opening up of beings must be directed toward equaling the prototype, resembling the archetype, directing itself according to the idea.” (Heidegger, 2000, 239)


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Ricardo Sanín Restrepo

Ricardo Sanín is a pro­fessor of legal and polit­ical theory and teaches in sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions across Latin America. Visiting profesor at Universidad Central de Quito, Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad de Mexico (UACM), Universidad San Luis de Potosí (Mexico) PUC Rio de Janeiro, Universidade Federal de Ceará-Brasil. Guest Lecturer at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), University of California in Berkeley, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Universidad de Valencia-Spain, Universidade Federal de Goias-Brasil. 


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