MOST POLITICAL DEMONSTRATIONS are held with the conviction that they serve a cause far bigger than the sum of their parts. I have seen many examples of this faith in the United States: the three pro-Palestinian pensioners who every Sunday berated passers-by in my glacially indifferent college town; the meagre picket lines of union workers at a doomed New York City hospital, shivering under the nose of a giant inflatable rat. They were sustained by the hope that their demands would be met, but also by the belief that they represented something larger: that they were not a lonely few, that they stood for all colonised and oppressed peoples. Or that they went on strike to protect the dignity of all labour. Clutching worn placards and shouting tired slogans, did they ever wonder if their pious efforts had all the impact of trees falling in a silent, unknowable forest?
The current Occupy Wall Street protesters in the US have an indefatigable, brazen belief in their broad relevance. The optimism is electric, the excitement contagious in the regular assemblies, rallies, and marches that have captured public places and public attention. Occupy Wall Street activists see themselves as part of a historical moment of social unrest around the world. Themes of universality and ubiquity shade much of the movement’s rhetoric. “All day, all year, occupy everywhere,” goes one chant. “The whole world is watching,” insists another.
Somebody must be watching. Less then one month after the initial occupation of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street stirred a day of coordinated protests across continents. On 15 October, demonstrators flooded the streets of cities in the United States and Europe. In New York, they stormed the iconic Times Square. In London, they rallied in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. In cities in Spain and Greece, thousands flocked to central squares.