Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: The California empire plants its flag around the globe

Queen Elizabeth II, one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, leaves the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey in London on Monday.
Queen Elizabeth II, one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, leaves the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey in London on Monday. Associated Press

The sun has set on the British Empire. Its successor, America, is showing signs of decline. But one empire still has plenty of battery life – California.

This is true even in the capital of the old empire. When I visited London last week, the newspapers were full of stories about the United Kingdom voting whether to leave the European Union in a June referendum. But what caught my eye were the garrisons of the Golden State.

“London Has Fallen,” a dumb new Hollywood thriller, might as well have been the city’s new slogan, given the ads everywhere. Within blocks of where I was staying, I encountered two different Hollywood production studios and testing space for films and TV. On the telly, our TV shows – “The Muppets,” “Last Man on Earth,” “American Horror Story” – were everywhere.

When I wanted a bite, I stopped at Tortilla, which served me “real California burritos.” For most of one day, I wandered around Silicon Roundabout, a cluster of technology companies in central and east London. British Airways had blanketed Underground stations with ads for its new direct flights to San Jose.

A friend took me around the property near King’s Cross where Google plans to build its giant new U.K. headquarters. The building of such a bold public monument to United Googledom demonstrates that the California empire is something different than the timid American empire, which the British historian Niall Ferguson described as “an empire in denial” that “lacks the drive to export its capital, its people and its culture to those backward regions which need them most urgently.”

The California empire is more like the British one, unapologetic in its conviction that it represents a better way of thinking. The cult of California technical “disruption” bespeaks a confidence that we can do whatever you do better, no matter how long or expertly you might have been doing it. While the American government is withdrawing from space travel, Hawthorne-based Space X is leading a renewed global push for cheaper space exploration.

One could argue that California-based tech executives have assumed the “leader of the free world” space once occupied by American presidents. While lame-duck President Barack Obama leads from behind, Golden State CEOs – most notably Apple’s Tim Cook – practice diplomacy and wage cyberwar against U.S. intelligence agencies, European regulators and Chinese army hackers. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg even learned Mandarin, as successful would-be colonizers do.

California will never amass the far-flung colonies the British did. But our reach is greater. At its height, the British Empire held sway over only one-fifth of the world’s people, while California firms have persuaded more than half of the people on Earth to carry phones that allow them to track their movements and choices. California’s virtual empire controls the hearts and minds of more people than any previous empire in history.

Both empires have been delivered big blows by Washington. In the British case, it was George Washington who robbed it of the colonies. In California, it is Washington, D.C. – and its gridlock on energy and immigration policies, not to mention its intrusive security agencies – that have slowed the state’s progress and threaten the credibility of Silicon Valley.

European continentals whose ancestors once warred with the British now fight the California empire with commissions and antitrust regulations. Many books offer many reasons why the British lost their empire: arrogance, overreach, wars, doubts about the wisdom of colonization. It remains to be seen if California’s empire can learn from those mistakes, or whether its days too are numbered, on account of its hubris.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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