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Not at Home in the Empire

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ABSTRACT: The distaste for the work of a colonial official, so clearly expressed in George Orwell's 'Shooting an Elephant', is often seen as reflecting a straightforward liberal commitment to freedom. This interpretation misrepresents both Orwell's standpoint and the character of liberal political reason. As a doctrine of government, liberalism is indeed committed to ruling over, and as far as possible to ruling through, the activities of free individuals. But it has also taken the view that substantial portions of humanity consist of individuals who are not — or not yet — capable of acting in a suitably autonomous fashion. This view results in a division of the world into settings in which individuals can normally be trusted to conduct themselves as autonomous rational agents and other settings in which they cannot be trusted to behave in this fashion. Examination of the consequences of this view for the practice of colonial government suggests a different interpretation of Orwell's account: it reflects a cultivated liberal's distaste, on the one hand, for working with and living among people he clearly regarded as inferior and, on the other, for the dirty work of paternalistic rule. A short concluding section considers the post-colonial liberal condition.
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Document Type: Regular Paper

Publication date: September 1, 2001

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