The persistent U.S. belief is that Western Europe is politically unstable. That conviction goes back at least to 1914 and is all but unshakable. It even is part of our American sense of ourselves: U.S. politics are stable and Europe's unstable because the United States is the society that has succeeded Old Europe.
That idea is bred in an American. But it could hardly be more wrong as a guide to Western Europe today, which suffers not from internal instability and desagreement but, probably, from too much agreement. There is a West European consensus of basic belief about the organization of society that is all but total.
To say this is to speak of the essentials of the European situation, not, obviously, of the surface. Of course, there are serious problems and quarrels within Western Europe today, but they do not shake the fundamental consensus of belief on social and even political values. There is unemployment everywhere and a troubling level of inflation nearly everywhere. There is violence of two kinds, that of the regional autonomists and that of the Red Brigades-- of which, more in a moment. The Portuguese still are sorting out their national ambitions after 40 years of Salazar's paternalist dictatorship and a searing colonial war. The Italians have a deep problem of political structures maladapted to the neeeds of modern Italian society. Britain has a maladapted modern economy. Britain als shares with West Germany a certain loss of confidence in its national destiny, an uncertainty about where it wants to go. Belgium has its endless struggle between linguistic communuties, embittered -- just as in Canada -- by past injustice. France's internal politics still suffers an ideological hangover from the past, with the French left still fairly uncritically devoted to Marxism. As a phrase from the Socialist Party's current internal debate has it, the French left still is obsessed with the Mass in Latin.
But all of this conceals amazing agreement. It conceals a really remarkable lack of grave internal problems in Western Europe. Years ago, Robert Benton and David Newman published a joking list of "basic" worries contrasted with "baroque" ones. It was, in fact, a useful distinction. Was and peace, the threat of Soviet invasion and world economic collapse are basic worries. Starvation, breadlines and runaway inflation are basic problems. Revolutionary movements, collapsing governments, concentration camps and torture are basic problems.
But linguistic disputes, argument over the proper power of trade unions or multinational corporations, sectarian debates among democratic socialists, the problems of financing the public sector, even unemployment and inflation at the levels we now experience, with today's safeguards and levels of insurance, are not basic problems. They constitute baroque worries -- by comparison with the other kind. We can afford them. We could even solve them. Not even terrorism for the sake of Basque of Corsican autonomy, or for a united Ireland, makes a truly basic problem, except for those with the misfortune to be killed or mutilated by the gunmen and bombers.
Western Europe today is extravagantly lucky. After 50 years of catastrophic European internal wars there have been 30 years of peace. Originally, it was a peace of exhaustion, but it has also proven to be a peace of creativity, originality and great social progress. In part, this has been a result of the simple success of the Western economy over these years, which has brought ordinary people good homes, plumbing, kitchen appliances, cars, paid vacations at the seaside. It has given Europeans universal free education of a high standard, access to music, paintings and books, even intelligent television (not, alas, a transatlantic achievement). Finally, and crucially, it has provided health, employment and retirement insurance at levels that remove, for most people in most circumstances, the risk of personal ruin.
But it has also come from a very wide agreement among West Europeans on what they want. Conservatives, Christian Democrats, the businessmen's parties, Social Democrats and Socialists in Europe share a remarkably wide platform on matters of social and economic policy. On these matters, their arguments mostly are ones of degree, not principle.
But so much agreement and so comfortable a way of life can itself be a danger. Dissent is deprived of a language, and dissent always exists -- except that today it runs increasingly in nonpolitical channels. Anodyne society blunts feeling, or sends it in unexpected directions. This is the significance of terrorism of the kind practiced by the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang. Their purpose is simply to convulse society so thoroughly that an apocalypse will arrive, which they cannot describe, but which they rigorously believe will render people ultimately happy.
In the past, political struggle dealt with power, money, private and public advantage. Now happiness is on the political agenda. Welfare society can now afford the existential problems. This is one of the reasons the United States has its cults and Western Europe it terrorists. We discover that happiness carries its own corrective.