In many responses to Agamben’s provocative claim that the concentration camp is the nomos of modernity, I have not seen much attention to the text from which Agamben draws the curious term nomos — namely, Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth. In that text, Schmitt puts forth the concept of nomos as being fundamentally about the way the earth is divided or portioned out, so that the meaning of nomos as “law” is secondary to this more originary meaning. Just as with all of Schmitt’s other major concepts (the exception, the enemy), the most fundamental division is between the inside (the politically ordered zones, in this case) and the outside (the “free zone” — the sea, in the eras he studies most closely).
As Agamben observes of the sovereign exception, however, this “outside” is actually simultaneously “inside” of the political, and indeed represents its most decisive motive force — in what Schmitt regards as the “classical” era of European politics, what was really decisive in the struggle among European nations was not military confrontations on land, but hegemony over the sea. Similarly, he predicts (accurately, it seems) that the US will gain hegemony over world politics through its hegemony over the newly emerging free zone, the air.
Agamben’s countermove within Schmitt’s scheme is to claim that the concentration camp is the more decisive “free zone,” the true incursion of the outside into the “normal” political order. Admittedly, “the camp as nomos” is a compressed way of expressing this, but it’s fundamentally justified in that the defining feature of any nomos of the earth, of any divisioning or portioning out of regions, is for Schmitt precisely the “free zone” that is inside-outside of the political order.
Thus Agamben is not saying that every state is “secretly” a concentration camp or anything of the sort, but that the free zone in which the earthly powers carry out their struggle is within the strange ontological topology of the camp — as opposed to the recognized political boundaries, for example. The experience of the War on Terror seems to bear this out, insofar as the US prefers to ignore recognized national boundaries but is very attentive to establishing camp-like spaces of extra-legal violence (most notably Guantanamo). We might also observe that the struggle between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations, after a brief episode of “traditional” military confrontations, has primarily taken the form of a struggle over the strange political no-man’s-land that is the Palestinian Occupied Territories (neither “officially” part of Israel, nor a “real” country, they are something like a huge refugee camp that has persisted for generations). More generally, under the contemporary global political dispensation, national boundaries are regarded as sacrosanct and unchangeable, so that military conflict tends to produce populations of refugees that constitute the real site of political struggle between and within nations.
Now I’m not going to say this account is indisputable. There are other candidates for the nomos of modernity — Schmitt’s example of the sky springs to mind still, as does the sweatshop — but Agamben’s diagnosis does seem fairly robust and defensible.