Fracking and Democracy in the United Kingdom

The Dark Side of Egalitarianism

in Social Analysis
Author:
Anna Szolucha Principal Investigator, Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Jagiellonian University, Krakow anna.szolucha@uj.edu.pl

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Abstract

An ongoing paradox of egalitarianism is its immanence with various forms of hierarchical organization, including within non-hierarchical social movements. However, little attention has been devoted to understanding the cascading effects of egalitarian dynamics that often manifest as anti-state and/or anti-corporate sentiments. UK anti-fracking activists challenged the state and the extractive industry on the basis of equality and justice, fundamental to their notions of democracy. Their experiences highlighted the ‘darker side’ of popular struggle because the distrust toward the government and industry overflowed and became directed inward. The personal impacts of activism and the challenges of forming non-hierarchical collectivities demonstrate the hidden backstory of egalitarian impulse that emerges from a sense of injustice and persists through personal hardship. It may also foster division, resentment, and conflict.

I looked at Mary as we sat down at her kitchen table. Her face was tired, her forehead and cheeks were furrowed with deep lines of stress and worry, and her eyes were puffy—a sign of another bad night. She immediately reached for her pack of tobacco to roll a cigarette, one of many that she would finish before our conversation was over. I waited until she lit it up so that she could relax and stop nervously tapping her fingers on the table. “Has your involvement in opposing fracking changed your views about democracy?” I asked. “Yes!” she replied. “I mean I'd often wondered if there was such a thing [democracy] really and truly, and now I just don't believe that we have a democracy in this country. It's a name only for control. We are being controlled by corporations, by the government because they are the lackeys of the corporations, and by the establishment. I don't think we have any say in what we do. We are pawns, most of us.”

At that point in 2020, I had known Mary for over five years, and this was one of many formal and informal chats that we shared. We talked about democracy, fossil fuels, climate change, surveillance, police, her life. And she had changed. She learned about fracking in 2011 when it caused the first earthquakes in her area near Blackpool in Lancashire (Green et al. 2012). Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial method of gas exploration and extraction: large volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals are pumped underground under high pressure to crack subterranean rocks and release gas. Together with some other local residents, Mary quickly sprang into action to oppose fracking in Lancashire. Soon, there were tens of other grassroots groups like hers all over the UK, and fracking had become a national issue (Short et al. 2020).

Over the five years of my research, I had seen Mary at her best—an energetic, articulate, organized, and selfless grandmother who cares deeply about the future of her area, as well as the planet. But I also witnessed how her engagement in opposing fracking transformed her—from a person who would immediately trust strangers and welcome them with a warm hug to somebody who starts whispering if she finds herself near an unfamiliar face; from someone who was happy to liaise with local police to show them that “we are normal, business-like people” to someone who gets arrested and refuses to speak to or engage with the police; from a respected neighbor to somebody who gets called names because her views on fracking are different from those of others; from a reasonably healthy and easygoing person to being so emotionally exhausted that she has problems with sleeping, smokes tobacco and marijuana more than ever, and has to go to a hospital because stress is impacting on her heart.

Mary is not a specific person, but she shares characteristics that I observed in many local residents, both anti- and pro-fracking, whom I met during my research. Mary embodies the transmutations and vagaries characteristic of egalitarian impulses that are simultaneously imbued with grand ideals of equality and justice and driven by bitter experiences of hostility and wrong. Wherever I went, the extent of social, political, and personal transformation that shale gas exploration and fracking (or the prospect of it) has effected was noticeable, not only in the locals who were actively involved in supporting or opposing it, but also in the immediate community of those who lived or worked in the vicinity of gas development.

However, unlike in the United States or Australia, where unconventional gas extraction quickly gathered momentum and local communities were already experiencing many of the physical and health impacts of fracking (see, e.g., Rijke 2013; Wylie 2018), in the UK shale gas development proceeded at a much slower pace, and the main effects have been connected with the social and political aspects of development (Szolucha 2018a). Mary was stressed because of the environmental impacts of gas exploration, such as induced seismicity or potential air and water pollution, but her worry was amplified by what she now understood to be the social and political reality that she lived in. As reflected in her comment above, her chief concern was the corporatization of state and society and the lack of democracy, understood as the lack of popular support and legitimacy for the decisions made by the national authorities. The feelings of injustice stemming from those concerns have changed her and worn her out, but they have also been the primary motive for her mobilization. Her experience of opposing fracking has challenged conventional notions of how democracy and the state's democratic institutions work. At the same time, her frustrated egalitarian impulses and perceptions of injustice reinforced the value of egalitarianism, not only for determining fair political and bureaucratic decisions, but also for reinventing democracy from below. Anti-fracking activists used the concept of democracy to refer to the most generic social bond that they perceived as the legitimate basis for their resistance to fracking and making popular demands that it be stopped. The same bond connected them to one another in their common mobilization against local shale gas developments. That is why I use democracy and egalitarianism interchangeably—to describe a generative ideal based on notions of equality of all, as well as a grassroots social force that exercised this notion through collective protest and dissent from below.

This alternative approach to democracy that emphasizes its grassroots foundations will help shed light on the contemporary nature of popular egalitarian imaginaries and dynamics. Within new extractive landscapes, democratic concerns are rooted in a simultaneous focus on the environmental impacts of extraction and the undoing of the political and economic power of energy companies. Hence, they usually have a distinctively anti-corporate and anti-governmental character. Arguments that the monopolistic power of oil corporations erodes democracy were mobilized as early as the nineteenth century (Appel et al. 2015). The collusion of extractive companies with governments (Jones 1977; Mitchell 1991; Shulman 2015)—or, better, the extent to which the border between the two has been historically flexible, with one acting in the capacity of the other (Rogers 2014; Smith-Nonini 2016)—mirrors contemporary articulations of the ‘corporate state’ as an effect of corporate power breaking away from the constraints of the state and taking over some of the state's functions (Hobart and Kapferer 2012; Kapferer and Bertelsen 2009). However, the current democratic upheaval in the context of fossil fuel extraction invites us to interrogate the present moment for the effects of potential novel dynamics of egalitarianism and new egalitarian imaginaries that are perhaps being invented and challenged.

In this article, I explore some of the less understood effects of egalitarian dynamics and imaginaries among members of front-line communities that have experienced or faced the prospect of fracking in England. On the one hand, their understanding of democracy and the simultaneous anti-state and anti-corporate sentiments helped to mobilize and fuel their anti-fracking struggles. On the other hand, the very same dynamics of disillusion and mistrust wore people out and flowed inward, enabling the emergence of a darker side of egalitarian impulses—a process that was marked by division and resentment. I draw on ethnographic research that I conducted between 2015 and 2020 across three locations in the UK: around the Preston New Road site in Lancashire, Ellesmere Port in Cheshire (both in northwest England), and the Kirby Misperton site in North Yorkshire (northeast England). My work involved almost daily presence near the prospective or actual fracking pads, participant observation during local events, and interviews and canvassing of local residents, police officers, business owners, farmers, and activists with varying opinions about fracking.

First, I briefly explore the significance of democracy for understanding the dynamics of environmentalist movements and protests and explain the meaning of egalitarianism as a generic human bond that was at the basis of how anti-fracking activists understood democracy. Second, I outline the reasons why fracking campaigners lost trust in the formal institutions of democracy and the extractive industry. I then move on to analyze shale gas developments as a social construction of corporate value that was being embedded in local relations and landscapes, creating even more conditions for polarization and conflict. I also reflect on the paradoxical nature of egalitarianism in that when it takes the form of anti-state and anti-corporate sentiments, it may foster deep distrust that can overflow and even cause social campaigns to implode. Lastly, I try to understand how the dynamics of distrust work through activist interventions that are at the same time a product and a negation of their frustrating circumstances. In the conclusion, I reflect on the dark side of the mutual entanglement of egalitarian imaginaries and deep distrust of state and corporate players.

Fossil Fuel Extraction and Democracy

Anthropologists have long documented the impacts of various fossil fuel developments on local communities (see, e.g., Behrends et al. 2011; Jalbert et al. 2017; Watts 2001), including the ways in which resource extraction has effects on popular rights, violence, the inconsistency of policy, and the lack of transparency in decision making. Although only some of them frame these issues in the language of democracy—using concepts such as the ‘resource curse’ (Gilberthorpe and Rajak 2017) or critiques of it (Reyna and Behrends 2011), new ‘politics of time’ (Kirsch 2014), or ‘regimes of imperceptibility’ (Wylie 2018)—it is clear that the ability of people who live near extractive industries to determine the shape and future of their immediate locality constitutes a common concern running through scholarly as well as grassroots engagement with resource development.

Different state-centric, rights-centric, or econo-centric conceptions of democracy have clearly been a focus of many academic works on energy, climate, and resource extraction. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of scholarly concepts attempting to define more democratic ways of organizing energy policy and decision making, such as ‘energy democracy’ (Burke 2018), ‘energy citizenship’ (Cantoni et al. 2018), and ‘energy justice’ (McCauley et al. 2013). The intensified scholarly interest in the intersections of energy and democracy succeeds, not coincidentally, the growing global pressure for using the current moment of the environmental crisis to unify all different social movements not only to tackle climate change but also to create a fairer and a more democratic world. Encapsulating powerful popular sentiments, Naomi Klein (2014: 10) asserted: “As part of the project of getting our emissions down … we once again have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.”

Reinvigorating democracy from the ground up appeals directly to the egalitarian dynamic that is addressed in this special issue. Visions such as Klein's are hardly unique to the present moment: similar rhetoric and movement tactics were also used in the 1970s and many times since (Szolucha 2020). The persistence of the link between reinvigorating democracy and protecting the environment, however, merits deeper analysis. The current academic debate about the role of democracy in energy developments (see, e.g., Fairchild and Weinrub 2017; Kinchy 2017; Rasch and Köhne 2018) also demonstrates that there is clearly a need to investigate the place of popular democratic power and social justice concerns in shaping the future of fossil fuel extraction in a climate-changing world. However, I am particularly interested in exploring those dimensions of egalitarian dynamics that reveal their paradoxical and potentially troubling character. Egalitarian impulses are paradoxical since they can be simultaneously perceived as a product and a negation of the corporatizing society. Popular egalitarian imaginaries are unruly because those who engage in struggles for environmental and social justice may often experience the darker side of egalitarianism, that is, the negative personal consequences of dissent as well as the overflowing of mistrust into all spheres of one's life. Mobilizing against the state and extractive industry teaches one to distrust certain forms of organization and makes other social, economic, or political relations seem always potentially suspect or corrupt. Even in loosely organized social movements, these dynamics may cascade and turn against the movements, sowing division and resentment and potentially undermining the effectiveness of grassroots action.

In the following, I treat democracy not as a particular form of government, a codified set of procedural rules of inclusion and exclusion, or a specific kind of ethics. Instead, I build on anthropological approaches to democracy (Paley 2008) and use the word in the way most similar to what my research participants meant when they mentioned ‘democracy’, that is, as the agency of society, originating in a bottom-up way and outside the state, which should be the basis that gives formal decision making its legitimacy. The democratic impetus that drives community-based mobilization and activism is a social and cultural force. Built on egalitarian imaginaries and values, it is the source of important political changes and decisions. Popular discontent in the form of social movements and other forms of collective resistance is instrumental in the emergence of this democratic impetus (Abramsky 2010; see also the introduction to this special issue), and as in many places in the past, it represents a potent merging of environmental, anti-corporate, and anti-authoritarian (anti-state) feelings.

At my field sites, egalitarianism manifested itself in the way that people thought of, related to, and talked about democracy. In their very attempt to break with existing democratic forms, their egalitarianism was founded on a democratic argument. The real kernel of their egalitarian living was not in their everyday organizing and the relations they forged among themselves; instead, the egalitarian impulse was harbored primarily in a bottom-up critique of democracy as they understood it, resulting in the rejection of the government's and corporate plans for fracking and a simultaneous reassertion of their agency as political subjects. Through this gesture they were trying to force the powers that be to recognize the foundational character of public engagement and protest. During fieldwork it became clear that this was based on an implicit premise that political legitimacy and the ability to rule are inescapably dependent upon a generic, egalitarian human bond that is at the heart of democratic structures. Without it, they would argue, there would be no state or society. We may say that through their resistance to shale gas, anti-fracking residents saw themselves as part of a communitas, “a relationship between concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals … not segmentalized into roles and statuses” (Turner [1969] 2017: 131–132). Therefore, democracy was understood not as a concrete political structure ‘up there’, but rather as an egalitarian human bond ‘down here’ that is the primary ontological condition for the existence of states and societies and the legitimacy of all decision making.

Mary's disenchantment with democratic structures and the ways in which fracking affected her life suggests that many dimensions of democracy have moved beyond the traditional ordering powers of the state (Kapferer and Gold 2018). Hence, egalitarian impulses may often be mobilized against the effects of the state, as well as those of corporate players. On the ground of fracking developments in the UK, the experience of ‘state capture’ has made people feel disempowered, frustrated, distrustful, polarized, stressed, and ill (Aryee et al. 2020; Szolucha 2021). However, the disillusion and mistrust that drove their resistance could also be redirected against their once and former allies, thus creating the conditions for the emergence of a darker side of egalitarian dynamics predicated on deep distrust.

Fracking as a Democratic Discourse

When asked about democracy, residents who have been actively supporting or opposing fracking are surprisingly in agreement in that they do not believe they live in a democracy. Many of these locals are middle-class, retired, and relatively new to social and political activism, which intensifies their feelings of disbelief and disappointment. As one local from Lancashire put it:

And what's happened to me whereas I've been naive, I've had no reason to disbelieve things over the years as I'd been told, because the media works in hand with the money people and they've also got their political affiliations so it's a lot of manipulation by the media, by the government, and it has dramatically affected my perspective and belief in the government, my belief in democracy and how these corporate businesses actually rule the country. It's destroyed my faith in democracy, destroyed my faith in the ethical nature of the government and the morality of the government, how people all of a sudden can be of such little importance. And that goes against all the things I was brought up to believe.

Disbelief, loss of faith, questions about morality and what is right and wrong, even ontological uncertainty about ‘the system’, were underpinning much of the egalitarian disposition of activists. For anti-fracking residents, the pro-fracking stance of the central government despite considerable public opposition exacerbated their disenchantment with democracy. In 2020, only 8 percent nationally supported shale gas extraction, and 45 percent opposed it (GOV.UK 2020). Local anti-fracking groups often found themselves spending considerable time and resources fighting against shale gas applications and winning at the local level, as in Lancashire and Cheshire where county councils refused planning permissions for gas development. However, gas companies could appeal, and the final determination of shale gas inquiries could be ‘recovered’ by Secretary of State Greg Clark, who was a representative of the pro-fracking government. Although his record of approving planning applications for shale gas has been mixed because he gave permission for one site in Lancashire but refused it in another location, fracking has become a democratic issue due to the perceived will of the government to centralize decision making about shale gas. The affective response that this generated in local residents was instrumental in reframing shale gas as a democratic and not merely an environmental issue.

When in 2016 grassroots anti-fracking groups in Lancashire were still waiting for the secretary of state's decision on whether he would call shale gas appeals in, one local resident told me, trying to tame her emotions:

Apart from having perhaps more highs and lows of emotion than I would normally have, I find that I do get really angry at things that are unjust … Even when I went to the Blackpool hearings …, I was listening to some of the people who were talking … I was listening to one particular person and toward the end of her five minutes, she actually broke down and she sobbed. I started to cry … I had somebody sitting here last night and our eyes filled up with tears and this is an elderly lady … [She asked:] “What are we going to do?” We'll just keep on doing exactly what we are doing. You can't get upset. It doesn't do you any good and doesn't do me any good because I will join in. Just know that if and when … Greg Clark does call this in, then it's no longer about fracking, it's now going to be about democracy and it's going to be about human rights.

Pro-fracking residents whom I spoke with also seem to have lost faith in formal institutions of democracy, albeit for different reasons than their anti-fracking counterparts. They seem to be disappointed because the pro-fracking government and the gas industry are not doing enough to promote fracking and help enhance their message on the ground. From their perspective, the pro-fracking stance of the government is insufficiently carried through by state agencies, which allow too much space for the anti-frackers to make their arguments and influence the pace at which gas exploration can take place. This also generates an affective response because the perceived inefficiency of the government at the local level undermines the work of pro-fracking residents who feel unsupported and exposed to criticism from the anti-fracking side. As one pro-fracking resident from North Yorkshire told me:

Because of what's going on with it all, politically and through the courts and the agencies that should help you, I've actually little faith in any of those. I have little faith in the police, little faith in the courts, little faith in democracy, little faith in the government, you know, what they do. It has changed. It's sad because I always thought the best of people. I thought they would have integrity. They will do the right thing and I've discovered they don't. And there has been probably one of the biggest saddest things, there is little integrity with organizations and people and it's sad really. Because I would always want to do the right thing, or I would hope that I'd do the right thing. Then you find out that everything is warped. Nothing is what it seems.

Popular disappointment with the formal institutions of democracy because the government is doing too little or too much to support fracking, however, is only partially responsible for the formation of affect around shale gas developments in England. The main force powering the egalitarian impetus of anti-fracking mobilizations (and the effect this has on pro-fracking residents) is an explicit anti-corporate and anti-state sentiment (fig. 1). “The government and particularly the Conservative government,” as a resident from North Yorkshire explained, “is more concerned with looking after the corporations and, by doing their bidding, gaining personally either by sponsorship or eventually a lucrative career after politics.” Another added: “I suppose one of the things that have become clear to me is that politics is almost like a puppet of the corporations … as this whole journey that we've been on for the last X number of years has unfolded, you start to see the lobbying and how powerful that is and that's frightening. That is really frightening. So for me politics is like a puppet of the corporations at its worst.”

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

Protest placard with drilling rig in the background, Preston New Road site in Lancashire, 2018. Photograph © Anna Szolucha

Citation: Social Analysis 66, 3; 10.3167/sa.2022.660303

These anti-corporate ‘affective intensities’, which are part and parcel of activism, possess a transformative potential that emerges from a feeling of vulnerability (Laszczkowski 2019). While these feelings can destroy or wear one out, for my interlocutors they also constituted a condition of growth and learning. However, in the fragments above, the corporate appears as an overpowering force. The sense that corporate interests were powerful and that the government was willing to concede to the wishes of the industry seemed to fuel the opposition, but it also created a profound feeling of powerlessness and insignificance, as in the reflection of this Lancashire resident:

You realize the strength of the opposition that you are up against and realize that climate change is happening … and you can't do anything about it. At the local level, we can perhaps influence our councilors in making decisions and you feel good about that. It has thrown up in my consciousness things like global warming. And I look at how the government is working and it's awful. I don't believe that Amber Rudd [secretary of state for energy and climate change (2015–2016)] doesn't understand for a second that climate change is real and that what she's doing for gas may be very convenient for Osborne [chancellor of the Exchequer (2010–2016)] but it's really crap for the rest of the country and the world and that makes me feel really bad … I feel bad about it but it's also expanding my consciousness of what's going on. I would regard the impact of fracking on my life so far as positive. I think I know now more and see things differently than before. But it's negative from the point of view of what I know and that I can't do anything about it. It's the frustration about how little you can impact things by legitimate means.

Fracking in the UK evolved from an environmental discourse into a discourse about democracy when residents began to feel disappointed with the workings of their elected representatives and democratic institutions. Their engagement in supporting or opposing shale gas has had a transformative effect on their ideas of democracy and their trust in public institutions. Perhaps most strikingly, it has also had a profoundly disempowering impact, regardless of whether they expressed their opposition to or support for fracking. The loss of faith in the formal institutions of democracy, feelings of disempowerment, and—in the case of anti-fracking residents—an intense anti-corporate sentiment have also been reinforced by the lived experiences of how fracking operated on the ground.

Fracking as a Social Construction of Corporate Value

Across the three locations in England that I have researched, shale gas has restructured social relations, criminalized resistance, and impacted on those who live and work in the vicinity of gas development in a myriad of other ways, reflecting its capacity to embed corporate values in local relationships and dynamics. The entire localities changed as a result of shale gas developments and the association of the fossil fuel industry with secrecy, private ownership, and the need for heightened surveillance and security protections. For example, cameras were installed in the vicinity of fracking pads so that the police could monitor the activity at the site gates and zoom into people's cars and faces. Signs scattered in the area of gas sites warned unwanted visitors to “keep out” because the land is “private,” and there is “no entry.”

Local relations became realigned because various residents, businesses, and farmers, even those who opposed fracking, asked and received help from fracking operators. In Lancashire, the gas company sent their own security to help a local farmer deal with a couple of protesters whose drone crash-landed on his field. He also got the company to install cameras on his farm buildings. Others put up gates to their yards so that people visiting the site would not park on their land. While receiving assistance from pro-industry bodies did not necessarily reflect one's views on fracking, it created a sense of distrust among locals because it seemed that the individualistic interests of some farmers and local businesses could be secured if they forged a relationship with the industry.

While some residents distrusted those who cooperated with the industry, others were suspicious of people who opposed shale gas development. Many local landowners, police officers, and industries pointed to protest movements when asked why they needed special security measures and precautions around shale gas sites. They linked protesters to dirt, feces, and infestation with lice. This is hardly new, for protest—especially the sustained occupation of land—has always been met with prejudice. There is also a political tendency to view environmental activists and those opposed to fracking as domestic extremists. Training sessions for public sector workers provided under the UK government's program to prevent counter-extremism used materials that labeled anti-fracking protest as extremism (Jackson et al. 2019). Among anti-fracking protesters, however, the behavior of police officers was often perceived as having the effect of limiting the right to protest and prioritizing commercial interests (Gilmore et al. 2016; Short et al. 2015).

The sense of heightened local surveillance was exacerbated by the suspicion of some protesters and residents that police gathered intelligence on their involvement in the shale gas issue and shared it with third parties, including fracking corporations and government agencies. After a few residents lost social benefits such as disability allowance since the start of shale gas activities in Lancashire, local police admitted to passing information to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), which is responsible for welfare and pension policy in the UK. Before the police made the admission, however, residents with disabilities started to link their sudden loss of benefits to their participation in the protests. The police passed video footage of them as they were protesting to the DWP (Szolucha 2022). Some protesters lost their support for purchasing disability vehicles after they had been pulled over and inspected by the police near a protest site.

Although gas developments in England are sometimes sited in socially and economically deprived areas such as around Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, it does not appear that fracking projects are planned more often in disadvantaged rather than more affluent locations. However, as the case with protesters who have disabilities demonstrates, corporate power can be expanded by exploiting various forms of social inequality; it can also use prejudice, informal dependencies, and a realignment of local relations. The impacts that shale gas developments have on local communities show that fracking was a social construction of corporate value that was being embedded in the day-to-day workings of resource environments, reconfiguring the local society in the process. This created polarized relations that generated more politicized outlooks.

The Dark Side of the Anti-fracking Struggle

I walk up the road to the fracking pad. Most colorful ribbons left by the anti-frackers that once adorned the hedgerows along the way have been withered by the sun and wind. I look at the writing on the asphalt: “Mary makes deals.” Unlike the ribbons, the smear spray-painted a long time ago seems to be withstanding the elements quite well. Mary was (and still is) often attacked by people who were once part of the same movement but who have been creating doubt about Mary's intentions and label themselves as the ‘true’ anti-frackers. It seems that distrust is a double-edged motive: it can mobilize anti-corporate sentiments, but it can also overflow, severing relationships within the anti-fracking movement and undermining its message in the community. For people like Mary, it can cause stress and fear for their lives.

Fracking activism in England emerged as a grassroots response to the weakening of the democratic functions of the planning and regulatory systems in the UK (Szolucha 2022). In line with their narratives about failing democracy and their anti-state sentiments, members of the anti- as well as pro-fracking groups often prided themselves on their spontaneous and non-hierarchical organizational structures. As one campaigner from Cheshire summarized it: “The strength of our group is the way we interact with one another, and there is not a leadership contest, there is no lunatism—well, within reason. There are not too many lunatics within our group. [Laughs] But I think that our strength is in our diverse nature of where we come from, ex-teachers, ex-architects, engineers. It's multifaceted. We all have a common interest in protecting our little patch.” Although some anti-fracking groups that I observed did have official roles, such as a chair or treasurer, and some members were clearly more involved than others, this rarely had any real significance beyond the facilitation of orderly interactions with the authorities during the planning process. In addition to those local campaign groups, loose clusters of activists who were involved in the daily protests and direct actions at fracking sites were autonomous and non-hierarchical in nature, and their members were often also engaged in anti-capitalist and environmental justice movements (Szolucha 2022).

The basis of protest at my field sites was the deep mistrust of the government and industry. However, in a non-hierarchical campaign like the one against fracking, deep distrust toward state and industry can overflow and turn against itself. Indeed, as the smear phrase spray-painted on the way to the fracking pad illustrates, one of the recurring features in anti-fracking communities were individuals who created narratives directed against significant figures in the movement. Some members of the movement have been on the receiving end of slur videos and have experienced various forms of verbal abuse, which has had serious effects on their mental health and well-being. Over the course of my research in one location, I observed and became aware of various confrontational situations during which different individuals mutually accused each other of wrongdoing that was harming the movement. There were accusations of intimidation, greenwashing, embezzling money, being protected by the government or the gas company, and spying for the police. As we have seen above, all of these allegations in one form or another were also leveled by the anti-fracking protesters at the government and the extractive industry. However, over time they were also turned inward to challenge the more organized parts of the anti-fracking movement, such as the local campaign groups or a national environmental direct action network that supported them. In doing so, some activists accused those groups of being organized in corporate ways or being ‘like the state’, meaning that their protest tactics were ineffective and disempowered the ‘real’ protesters.

Some of these claims were accompanied by attempts to ‘expose’ various figures in the movement, while simultaneously asserting one's own status as a ‘true’ protester whose actions were being stifled by the ‘purported’ anti-frackers who in reality were a ‘controlled opposition’ working for the government. The situation created tense dynamics and severed several friendships between people who were making the accusations and those who supported or did not distance themselves from them. When the two groups met in front of the fracking pad, they could be confrontational. The police were aware of the problem, but the campaigners whom I spoke with thought that they were not doing their part in investigating the matter. Some even suggested that the officers, being part of a state agency, might even deliberately postpone action to undermine the strength of the anti-fracking movement. The situation was extremely upsetting for all involved, and the disagreements persisted even after the protest was over.

The rise of conspiracy theories and growing public distrust have been observed in Western societies for some time now (Pelkmans and Machold 2011; West and Sanders 2003). Shale gas is a socio-political issue that may be a particularly fertile ground for the creation of conspiracies and division because it engages the biggest players, is often veiled in secrecy, and produces narratives of national interest and geopolitical contest. As I described in the previous section, the everyday operation of fracking environments also changes local relations in ways that breed distrust and the polarization of attitudes. Furthermore, anti-fracking campaigners are often inherently critical and distrustful of the state and extractive industries. The distrust toward the corporatized state and society is, therefore, both what motivates and fuels anti-fracking activism and what sometimes blows it apart.

In the following section, I suggest that egalitarian dynamics are at least partially responsible for creating the potential of anti-state and anti-corporate sentiments to turn inward, against grassroots campaigns and movements themselves. Those anti-fracking activists who criticize others as ‘controlled opposition’ do so on the basis of their perception that organized campaigns are state- or corporate-like organizations. Hence, they build on the long-standing paradox within egalitarianism that in this special issue we call the ‘hierarchical structure of equality’. This paradox shows how formations that aim at negating restrictive or undemocratic institutions can never entirely break away from the socio-economic and political forces that uphold those institutions.

The Paradoxes of Egalitarian Struggle

In 2016, Mary and I sat tanning in the spring sun to catch up. She was waiting for a painter to redo her child's house, and her little hyperactive dog was constantly asking for attention and dashing around in the tiny back garden. I had known her for only a year then, but she had already been campaigning against fracking for almost five years. “It's a hard battle, really,” she said, reflecting further on the various pressures of activism and dealing with the media:

I got to the point where I'm really content with a live interview for anybody, especially like BBC. I'll take a live one because at least once it will go out honest. You will edit me down to nothing later, but at least you get that one honest thing … I think that the mainstream, you still have to keep on talking to them cause sadly, the rest of the country are still watching them. So even if you can only appear for 30 seconds and look like someone they might relate to and speak and it's that learning to be measured and again I just speak as normal, whereas if you're trying to give soundbites, to get everything to a soundbite, soundbite, soundbite … that's a horrid fricking thing cause then you feel like you're becoming the corporate or the PR or ugh. You're constantly struggling with your own sense of what's moral, what's right, what's normal and what behaviors you are willing to be taken into because as a human being, you want to stand and be yourself and fighting your way, and there are all these other things that sort of try to dictate your behavior along the way.

As with most anti-frackers, the corporatization of state and society is one of the primary motives of Mary's activism, but it also represents a set of values and a language—recognized by the larger society—that the opposition must know how to speak in order to spread its message. Activists usually oscillate between their sense of “what's moral and … behaviors you are willing to be taken into” while still “fighting your way.” Mary's moral dilemma is representative of the way in which many anti-fracking activists and local residents relate to corporatization. Anti-corporate activism is paradoxical in that it can be viewed simultaneously as a product and an antithesis of the corporate state. First, corporatization creates inequality and breeds popular distrust that motivates resistance, thus inadvertently producing popular dissent. Second, activists often speak a corporate-centered language and employ economistic logics, while at the same time negating them. This paradox is apparent in the tactics that residents use to oppose fracking and also goes some way toward explaining the difficulties involved in generating egalitarian/democratic forms of life within the context of protests.

The most spectacular and popular forms of protest against fracking in the UK have been various forms of blockades and stoppages through lock-ons and lorry surfing. A lock-on (fig. 2) takes place when protesters obstruct the entrance to a gas site by locking arms, usually inside a plumbing pipe. To remove them, police must cut carefully through the different layers of the pipe. The operation takes time, which is the aim of the lock-on since it will delay the drilling and fracking processes. Lorry surfing is another tactic to cause delay. Protesters jump on top of an incoming wagon, which means that it has to stop. The police have to persuade them to come down on their own or take them down using specialist equipment, which prevents a timely delivery.

Figure 2:
Figure 2:

A lock-on outside the Preston New Road fracking site near Blackpool, Lancashire, 2017. Photograph © Anna Szolucha

Citation: Social Analysis 66, 3; 10.3167/sa.2022.660303

Both tactics are understood by the protesters as a direct intervention that aims to obstruct the harmful process of gas development. However, they realize that the delay that they cause, even if it lasts for several hours, is still only temporary, and normal operations at the fracking site will be resumed as soon as the stoppage is over. Lorry surfing and lock-ons are therefore only partially directed at the day-to-day functioning of the fracking projects. Instead, the protesters’ tactics are also informed by their understanding of how finance investment works. One of the primary reasons for causing delay to fracking is that it limits company's progress and hence postpones financial returns for the investors, which will discourage them and make further borrowing by fracking companies more difficult. The anti-fracking residents hope that through delay they will be able to turn the tide and, as one local from North Yorkshire put it, allow “the anti-story to catch up with the pro-story” and make “the anti-narrative stronger than the pro-narrative.” They often perceive their message to be in line with the times and the prevailing public opinion: “There is not gonna be a large-scale onshore industry based on oil and gas in this country because the times have changed. Public opinion is moving against it and also investors I think are getting their fingers burned. And they should be putting their money into renewables.”

Although fracking activists may reject state and industry as the primary arbiters of what is good for their local communities, the tactics they use are hardly detached from the realities of the market. On the contrary, campaigners’ actions often demonstrate that they are acutely aware of the contexts in which they are acting and of the need to mobilize ordinary members of the public. Therefore, the egalitarian impulse that drives them not only stems from and persists through their personal and collective experiences of injustice. It is also shaped by the political and economic status quo that the activists are trying to use to their advantage while simultaneously remaining true to their principles. This gesture does not amount to abandoning their ideals but rather reaffirms them through their intervention, which is at the same time a product and a negation of their frustrating circumstances. This is precisely how activists have usually navigated the paradoxical nature of egalitarianism—trying to turn things around by challenging and critically engaging with what is at hand. However, if anti-state and anti-corporate sentiments are taken to their extreme, this may create distrust and resentment among members of the same campaign or movement because some may accuse others of acting like the state or industry.

Conclusion

What then are the new dynamics of egalitarianism as they are exercised by social movements and local campaigns today? The case of anti-fracking activism in England discussed here underlines the effects of the mutual entanglement of egalitarian principles and deep distrust of state and corporate players at the present historical juncture. Egalitarianism is understood as a generic bond between humans that serves as the legitimate basis for their resistance to fracking and their challenges of formal democratic institutions. My research revealed that dissent based on such egalitarian imaginaries was predominantly caused by popular disappointment with the formal institutions of democracy, which was directed against the state and the extractive industry. The popular loss of faith in the authorities among those who lived and worked in the vicinity of fracking and gas developments in England was further reinforced by the effects of the corporatization of new resource landscapes. People could experience first-hand how extractive industries created value out of a realignment of social relations, prejudice, and inequality. Simultaneously, a deep distrust of any formalized form of organization—whether hierarchical or not—overflowed and severed the relations within anti-fracking campaigns, leading to division and conflict. All of these factors contributed to the emergence of the ‘dark side’ of egalitarianism, the dynamics of which polarized communities, causing considerable amounts of stress, anxiety, and low-level conflict in the process.

In the case analyzed in this article, egalitarian impulses were taken to their extreme because they were directed against any form of organized resistance, likening it to the operation of the state and corporations. This constituted a strong reaction to the inevitable paradox of egalitarianism. I suggest that herein lies perhaps a new feature of egalitarianism in our disorienting social and political realities. Anti-authoritarian and anti-corporate sentiments that have long accompanied struggles for social and environmental justice now share many characteristics with the powerful forces of social and political distrust that are currently being widely promoted for political advantage. Conspiracy theories thrive at all levels of society, creating fertile ground for more division, resentment, and even violence between those holding different views. In such contexts, egalitarian rhetoric may undermine its own equalizing and liberating potentials and fail to serve the purpose of promoting human liberty. Hopefully, by understanding the precise dynamics through which this dark side of egalitarianism rears its head, societies will be able to respond in ways that are reoriented toward more cooperation and equality.

Ultimately, a moratorium on fracking remains in place in the UK, and it is not inconceivable that popular protest has played its part in making it an unpopular policy choice for decision makers. Social movements and grassroots campaigns are a source of popular learning and provide many people with a purpose, passion, and circle of devoted friends and allies. On the other hand, egalitarian impulse emerges from a sense of injustice, and thus its backstory is always darker and meaner. Mary's case (and through her, the accounts of many of my research participants) epitomizes some of the main features of present-day egalitarian imaginaries and demonstrates their painful underbelly—the (currently) untamable social dynamics of distrust and the personal price that many will pay for supporting popular democratic demands from the bottom-up.

Acknowledgments

I wish to thank all research participants who shared their experiences and stories with me. I am also grateful to the “Egalitarianism” team members for their helpful feedback and encouragement throughout the project. Research for this article received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 657039 and from the NERC-ESRC program on Unconventional Hydrocarbons in the UK Energy System, project reference: NE/R018146/1.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Short, Damien, Jessica Elliot, Kadin Norder, Edward Lloyd-Davies, and Joanna Morley. 2015. “Extreme Energy, ‘Fracking’ and Human Rights: A New Field for Human Rights Impact Assessments?International Journal of Human Rights 19 (6): 697736. https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219.

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  • Short, Damien, Paul B. Stretesky, and Anna Szolucha. 2020. “Briefing Paper: Anti-’fracking’ Activism and Local Democracy.” November. http://www.ukuh.org/media/sites/researchwebsites/2ukuh/89490%20Unconventional%20Hydrocarbons.pdf.

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Contributor Notes

Anna Szolucha is the Principal Investigator of the ARIES Project at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Her research interests focus on the intersections of natural resources, technology, and society. Her current project investigates the role of space resources and technologies in creating and sustaining imaginaries of ‘multi-planetary’ communities. She is the editor of Energy, Resource Extraction and Society (2018). E-mail: anna.szolucha@uj.edu.pl

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Social Analysis

The International Journal of Anthropology

  • Figure 1:

    Protest placard with drilling rig in the background, Preston New Road site in Lancashire, 2018. Photograph © Anna Szolucha

  • Figure 2:

    A lock-on outside the Preston New Road fracking site near Blackpool, Lancashire, 2017. Photograph © Anna Szolucha

  • Abramsky, Kolya, ed. 2010. Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Appel, Hannah, Arthur Mason, and Michael Watts. 2015. “Introduction: Oil Talk”. In Subterranean Estates: Life Worlds of Oil and Gas, ed. Hannah Appel, Arthur Mason, and Michael Watts, 126. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Aryee, Feizel, Anna Szolucha, Paul B. Stretesky, Damien Short, Michael A. Long, Liesel A. Ritchie, and Duane A. Gill. 2020. “Shale Gas Development and Community Distress: Evidence from England.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (14): 5069. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17145069.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Behrends, Andrea, Stephen P. Reyna, and Günther Schlee, eds. 2011. Crude Domination: An Anthropology of Oil. New York: Berghahn Books.

  • Burke, Matthew J. 2018. “Energy Democracy and the Co-Production of Social and Technological Systems in Northeastern North America.” In Szolucha 2018b, 88104.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cantoni, Roberto, Aleksandra Lis, and Agata Stasik. 2018. “Creating and Debating Energy Citizenship: The Case of Shale Gas in Poland.” In Szolucha 2018b, 5369.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fairchild, Denise, and Al Weinrub, eds. 2017. Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gilberthorpe, Emma, and Dinah Rajak. 2017. “The Anthropology of Extraction: Critical Perspectives on the Resource Curse.” Journal of Development Studies 53 (2): 186204. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2016.1160064.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gilmore, Joanna, William Jackson, and Helen Monk. 2016. Keep Moving! Report on the Policing of the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp, November 2013–April 2014. Report for the Centre for Urban Research, University of York. https://pure.york.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/keep-moving-report-on-the-policing-of-the-barton-moss-community-p.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GOV.UK. 2020. “BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker: Wave 33.” Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 7 May. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/beis-public-attitudes-tracker-wave-33.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Green, Christopher A., Peter Styles, and Brian J. Baptie. 2012. Preese Hall Shale Gas Fracturing: Review & Recommendations for Induced Seismic Mitigation. Report for Department of Energy and Climate Change, 25 April. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/48330/5055-preese-hall-shale-gas-fracturing-review-and-recomm.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hobart, Angela, and Bruce Kapferer, eds. 2012. Contesting the State: The Dynamics of Resistance and Control. Canon Pyon: Sean Kingston Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jackson, Will, Joanna Gilmore, and Helen Monk. 2019. “Policing Unacceptable Protest in England and Wales: A Case Study of the Policing of Anti-Fracking Protests.” Critical Social Policy 39 (1): 2343. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018317753087.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jalbert, Kirk, Anna Willow, David Casagrande, and Stephanie Paladino, eds. 2017. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jones, G. Gareth. 1977. “The British Government and the Oil Companies 1912–1924: The Search for an Oil Policy.” Historical Journal 20 (3): 647672. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2638433.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kapferer, Bruce, and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen. 2009. “Introduction: The Crisis of Power and Reformations of the State in Globalizing Realities.” In Crisis of the State: War and Social Upheaval, ed. Bruce Kapferer and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen, 126. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kapferer, Bruce, and Marina Gold. 2018. “A Nail in the Coffin.” Arena Magazine 152 (February): 3743. https://arena.org.au/informit/a-nail-in-the-coffin/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kinchy, Abby. 2017. “Citizen Science and Democracy: Participatory Water Monitoring in the Marcellus Shale Fracking Boom.” Science as Culture 26 (1): 88110. https://doi.org/10.1080/09505431.2016.1223113.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kirsch, Stuart. 2014. Mining Capitalism: The Relationship between Corporations and Their Critics. Oakland: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Klein, Naomi 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  • Laszczkowski, Mateusz. 2019. “Rethinking Resistance through and as Affect.” Anthropological Theory 19 (4): 489509. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499618793078.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCauley, Darren A., Raphael J. Heffron, Hannes Stephan, and Kirsten Jenkins. 2013. “Advancing Energy Justice: The Triumvirate of Tenets and Systems Thinking.” International Energy Law Review 32 (3): 107110. https://research-repository.st-andrews.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/10023/6078/IELR_2013.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mitchell, Timothy. 1991. “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics.” American Political Science Review 85 (1): 7796. https://doi.org/10.2307/1962879.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paley, Julia, ed. 2008. Democracy: Anthropological Approaches. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.

  • Pelkmans, Mathijs, and Rhys Machold. 2011. “Conspiracy Theories and Their Truth Trajectories.” Focaal 2011 (59): 6680. https://doi.org/10.3167/fcl.2011.590105.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rasch, Elisabet Dueholm, and Michiel Köhne. 2018. “Energy Practices and the Construction of Energy Democracy in the Noordoostpolder (the Netherlands).” In Szolucha 2018b, 7086.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reyna, Stephen P., and Andrea Behrends. 2011. “The Crazy Curse and Crude Domination: Towards an Anthropology of Oil.” In Behrends et al. 2011, 329.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rijke, Kim de. 2013. “The Agri-Gas Fields of Australia: Black Soil, Food, and Unconventional Gas.” Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment 35 (1): 4153. https://doi.org/10.1111/cuag.12004.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rogers, Douglas. 2014. “Energopolitical Russia: Corporation, State, and the Rise of Social and Cultural Projects.” Anthropological Quarterly 87 (2): 431451. https://doi.org/10.1353/anq.2014.0017.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Short, Damien, Jessica Elliot, Kadin Norder, Edward Lloyd-Davies, and Joanna Morley. 2015. “Extreme Energy, ‘Fracking’ and Human Rights: A New Field for Human Rights Impact Assessments?International Journal of Human Rights 19 (6): 697736. https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Short, Damien, Paul B. Stretesky, and Anna Szolucha. 2020. “Briefing Paper: Anti-’fracking’ Activism and Local Democracy.” November. http://www.ukuh.org/media/sites/researchwebsites/2ukuh/89490%20Unconventional%20Hydrocarbons.pdf.

  • Shulman, Peter A. 2015. Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  • Smith-Nonini, Sandy. 2016. “The Role of Corporate Oil and Energy Debt in Creating the Neoliberal Era.” Economic Anthropology 3 (1): 5767. https://doi.org/10.1002/sea2.12044.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Szolucha, Anna. 2018a. “Community Understanding of Risk from Fracking in the UK and Poland: How Democracy-Based and Justice-Based Concerns Amplify Risk Perceptions.” In Governing Shale Gas: Development, Citizen Participation and Decision Making in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe, ed. John Whitton, Matthew Cotton, Ioan M. Charnley-Parry, and Kathryn Brasier, 242255. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Szolucha, Anna. 2018b. Energy, Resource Extraction and Society: Impacts and Contested Futures. London: Routledge.

  • Szolucha, Anna. 2020. “Why Is Everyone Talking about Climate Change … Again?Irish Journal of Sociology 28 (1): 8996. https://doi.org/10.1177/0791603520908188.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Szolucha, Anna. 2021. Shale Gas Developments in England: Social Impacts and Comparisons. https://books.google.com/books/about/Shale_Gas_Developments_in_England.html?id=ZJdCEAAAQBAJ.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Szolucha, Anna. 2022. “Watching Fracking: Public Engagement in Postindustrial Britain.” American Ethnologist 49 (1): 7791. https://doi.org/10.1111/amet.13049.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Turner, Victor W. (1969) 2017. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. London: Routledge.

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