Freeters and their political impact

A contribution by Andy Robinson:

“A Freeter (“a Japanese expression for people between the age of 15 and 34 who lack full time employment or are unemployed, excluding homemakers and students” – Wikipedia). Although the Japanese have coined a term for the group, they exist all over the world, and are a social force of underestimated and growing importance. The Japanese are unusual in giving it a name. This is the stratum which provides most of the participants in autonomous activism throughout the global North. In Japan, the Freeters General Union is a political body with a broadly autonomist and anti-neoliberal perspective, which organizes initiatives such as Mayday demonstrations and anti-government protests (see Many of those participating in similar protests in European countries doubtless come from a similar social position.

Other places have other names. In Africa, the term “youth” is often extended to members of a similar category – young people (especially but not exclusively men) who are too old to be classified as children who are expected to have potential support, but who have not entered into the socially-recognised categories of adulthood by getting a well-paid job. Such a person is caught in a kind of social limbo between social statuses, and appear discursively and socially as perennial agents of revolt – “youths” form the backbone of most protests, the footsoldiers of political parties, the recruits for resistance and opposition movements, etc.

The term “neet” is sometimes used in English, meaning “not in employment or education”; in Blairite-neoliberal rhetoric, “neet” are viewed as a problem. In post-autonomism, “emarginati” has some similar connotations, though it refers mainly to those within the group who have (marginal) work. Similarly, “precariat” and “precarity” have emerged as terms in the discourse in Europe, signifying marginal workers and non-workers as distinct from full-time, well-paid workers.

Whatever its name, this stratum is politically important. It is one of the most common constituencies of radical and insurgent political movements across the spectrum, and its peculiar situation – slipping outside the segmentary linear functioning of identity-narratives of paid work, consumer affluence and (nuclear) family – places it at the forefront of historical transformation. In Iran, there is an entire dissident counterculture emerging from a similarly situated stratum of young people (Zanganeth ed 2006). One might in other circumstances say that this group is the main constituency of the Afghan and Pakistani (neo-)Taleban (Giustozzi 2007) and of Islamism in Egypt (Slackman 2008). In India, pressures reminiscent of the 1968 rebellions are stirring in the cities as the situation of single youths runs up against conservative values (Chakravarthy 2007). In mainstream political science scholarship, a similar stratum – usually identified as educated, un/underemployed, and socially frustrated – has been identified as the agent of autonomous activism in Europe (Clark 1996), of East Asian communist movements (reference misplaced), and of a wide range of ethnic revivalist and nationalist movements (Smith 1979).

The context for the emergence of this group (or groups, if we count the “educated” freeter and the hyper-excluded as distinct) is that the formal economy is declining in scale across the world, leaving more and more people outside of or marginal to it. Unemployment, and casual and marginal employment, are rising pretty much everywhere. Only a small and declining proportion of the world’s population can expect stable jobs and lives. This leaves a large proportion with a very limited stake in the system. Even if attracted to the dominant discourse of success within the system (which is by no means guaranteed), such people typically lack the means to obtain what the system claims to offer. The “educated” freeter specifically, emerges from the intersection of the excluded stratum with modernist discourses of inclusion through education (which often seek to universalize education but not inclusion, or confuse the stratifying effects of formal education with a presumed capacity of education to raise welfare by itself). Many countries have sought, and still seek, to stimulate investment and development by training large numbers of graduates in target areas (for example, engineering in Egypt), a trend which may be exacerbated by “knowledge society” discourse and the use of education and training as a means of managing unemployed people. The dispossessed more broadly emerge from systemic violence such as forced displacement, accumulation-by-dispossession, resource grabbing, war, negative patronage (harming outsiders to please insiders), criminalization and intolerance of difference. The excluded are central protagonists in many social struggles. As the Caffentzis puts it, ‘Once again, as at the dawn of capitalism, the physiognomy of the world proletariat is that of the pauper, the vagabond, the criminal, the panhandler, the refugee sweatshop worker, the mercenary, the rioter’ (1992: 321). This excluded stratum tends towards the network form, but can easily end up pulled into the reactive rather than active kind of network.”

For more info, see Andy’s bibliography here.

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