In fracking, fissures in underground shale are blasted open by injecting a combination of liquid, sand and chemicals under high pressure to release the natural gas which is dispersed in small quantities throughout the rock. I don’t know enough about the process and its potential risks to take a strong view on the subject ( I totally pilfered that description from a couple of web articles). But it offers a near-irresistable metaphor for the Conservatives' 2015 electoral strategy (the one they’ve been following since June 2010).
That strategy is to locate a fissure in the fabric of social relations and blast it open by injecting into it, at the highest possible pressure, a combination of hot air, self-stimulated outrage and misleading (in some cases, fabricated) statistics. The aim is to release low level social grievances around welfare which were previously too dispersed to be efficiently exploited and to process them into a sense of massive social injustice which can be channelled in the direction of the previous party of government. But if Labour is the ultimate target, it is people in receipt of social security benefits who are the primary focus. Social fracking is about blasting open a fracture between 'benefit claimants' and 'taxpayers'.
This is a purely rhetorical strategy. It's directed at social perceptions, not social realities. The Tories don’t want to fracture society. But they need a public perception of large scale social fracture in order to turn everyday discontent into a political force. Hence the importance of statistics. Suspicious when you see that guy on incapacity benefit doing his garden? Well guess what: a million IB claimants quit the benefit as soon as they heard they were going to be tested!* Think your hateful brother-in-law’s family have it a bit too easy on benefits? Well, loads of people are getting £100,000 a year!** Those twinges of suspicion and resentment that you used to feel half-ashamed of turn out to be a perfectly understandable response to injustice- and you're the victim. Now you can take your grievance to the pub, the market-place, your job and the social media. And this is essential to the process, because the key thing with social fracking, as with fracking for gas, is to get the crack you’ve opened up to proliferate.
Although the Westminster village sees social fracking as an unbeatable strategy, it's really not clear at this stage what political impact, if any, it has had. But there has been a very heavy investment in fracking over the last three years, and whether or not it works politically for the Conservatives, it could have other longer term consequences.For one thing, we have already had legislation which serves no purpose other than fracking: the coalition's benefit cap is not so much a policy as a communication device telling middle England that benefit claimants have been milking the country dry. It will probably be years before a successor government will dare to get rid of it, despite the administrative nightmare it has caused.
But apart from the damage to policy, there are inevitably questions about possible social impacts. While the strategy is aimed at perceptions of society rather than at society itself, this may not be as clear a distinction as it seems. How a society understands and misunderstands itself is part of its social fabric, and how social groups are perceived by others forms part of that group's ascribed social identity. Whether there are measurable social effects from political communications is a question to be approached with a healthy measure of scepticism. Nonetheless, at some point, changes in social perceptions become changes in social reality, and the success of social fracking as a political strategy may well depend on reaching that point. To borrow Orwell's phrase about left-wing thinkers, social fracking looks like 'a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.'
*They didn't. **They aren't.