I'm a little late getting to Stuart Hall's house in north London. My otherwise efficient mini-cab driver is finding it difficult to read this particular set of road names. "What was that one we just went past?" he asks. I turn and stare through the dusty back window. Ah yes. Got it. "Agamemnon", I tell him. "And that's fine. We're on the right track. It's another of the myths."Illustration by Gary Neill
Illustration by Gary Neill

Almost before Stuart's closed the door after me we're discussing the network of streets in which he lives, considering the poor schmucks who have to spell out Agamemnon or Ulysses every time they want to order a pizza, the lucky Ajax residents who can thank a foaming bath cleanser for the familiarity of their road, and the sad souls from Narcissus Road who must frequently have to contend with friends who accuse them of selecting their address out of excessive self-regard. Street names, we agree, are wonderful examples of the benevolent paternalism of local authorities, little self-improvement quizzes handed out to the lower orders. You can see the logic. If someone is going to spend half their life living in street named after Agamemnon isn't it just possible that one day they'll find themselves ordering Homer from the local library?

Stuart is already laughing. That's good news. I've heard so much about his illness in recent years that on the way over to his place I'd begun to think that it might now be difficult to elicit that wonderful soft playful chuckle – it's almost a conspiratorial giggle – with which he enfolds his friends and the many admiring colleagues he collected during his journey from the New Left Review in the late '50s, to the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the '60s and '70s, and the Open University in the last third of the century.

I always relished that chuckle. Years ago at academic conferences, when he was either busy breathing life and energy into the new discipline of cultural studies or insistently bringing the insights of the post-structuralists to bear upon new readings of Marx, it reassuringly told me that my company was welcomed even if I wasn't exactly the first person he'd turn to when he wanted to discuss some of the finer points of media decoding or Althusser's account of hegemony.

I tell him that I'm glad to see him looking well, adding that so many friends were anxious for an account of his condition. On the face of it they were asking for medical details but the intensity of their enquiries suggested to me that they were really asking if Stuart was still a force, if he could still be counted on to provide the type of incisive political analysis that made so many of us first recognise the true significance of Thatcherism and New Labour.

"Laurie, I am in many ways surprisingly well. I have had renal failure, a complete failure. Without dialysis I would fade away. It's been coming a long time. It was identified in the '80s and then gradually it has happened."

And did that mean that it was now difficult for him to have the same level of political involvement?

"I go to dialysis three days a week. I spend the whole of Monday managing a project at the arts centre. I don't have any social time. I don't go to conferences and I don't go to places where I meet a lot of people."

You've stopped writing about politics?

"I can only maintain a limited number of things. When you write about politics everybody says come and talk. I just can't do that any longer. Not big talks. I am due now to give about three big lectures. I wake at four o'clock in the morning thinking about them. I can talk informally but when it's a big public conversation, my adrenaline goes up. It uses up the liquid in my body and as soon as I have lectured I am sick. Really sick."

I'm slightly embarrassed by this graphic account. It's not the medical details of Stuart's condition which disconcert me so much as the slight guilt I feel about harbouring the idea – much touted by a few of his former friends and colleagues – that the real reason for his relative political silence is not so much illness as disillusionment. That's the reason I've been told that he now devotes such time to his blessed visual arts centre. It's a sort of alibi. I decide to approach the issue obliquely. What was it that had led him to become so involved in the visual arts?

"When I retired I wanted to do something new. I didn't fancy being an academic without an institution. I've always worked with institutional collectives. Without some sort of grouping I feel kind of lost. The idea of trying to do it upstairs in my study on my own didn't feel right at all. And I had become chair of two organisations involved in cultural diversity in the arts, one in visual arts and one in photography, and I sort of got them together and applied for a lottery grant because I thought there ought to be a centre where a lot of this work is visible. That's the short answer. The long answer would be that ever since the '80s I've been writing about questions of cultural identity and a lot of work in that area has been carried out in the visual arts by minority communities."

So people would be wrong to see this shift as indicating any sort of political disillusionment?

"It is not entirely wrong. I haven't abandoned politics. I am still intensely interested in political questions. But yes, I am deeply politically disillusioned. There is no question about that. No question. Yes, I wrote a lot about Thatcherism. And yes, I saw New Labour coming. And I didn't like it. It fulfilled what I knew it would. But I can't do anything about it now. What can I do?"

Wasn't that a little too despairing? Hadn't he always insisted upon the importance of analysing the present. I remembered his quoting his favourite theorist Antonio Gramsci to this effect in the 1989 collection of essays Out of Apathy: "Gramsci said, 'Turn your face violently towards things as they exist now.' Not as you'd like them to be, not as you think they were ten years ago, not as they're written about in sacred texts, but as they really are: the contradictory, stony ground of the present conjuncture."

He quoted Gramsci back at me. "I am a pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will. I do think you have to analyse the things that are in front of you and try to understand how they really are and not how you would like them to be. And then try to find out what the possibilities are for change and work with those. Yes, that is my strategy."

But was he still pursuing it? I reminded him of how much his analysis of Thatcherism (he is popularly credited with having coined the 'ism') had meant to people in progressive politics. While others were regarding her ascendancy as a peculiar political blip of no lasting importance, he recognised it for the profound change it was. He had seen how her brand of politics would appeal to traditional working-class Labour voters in much the same way that he had seen years earlier how the class action so beloved of the old vulgar Marxist left would gradually be attenuated by the new patterns of consumption and lifestyle obsessions. Where was the new analysis?

"I think for the first time I feel like a dinosaur. Not in regard to the particular things or the particular programmes that I believe in. But there's been a shift. The points of reference that organised my political world and my political hopes are not around any more. The very idea of the 'social' and the 'public' has been specifically liquidated by New Labour. It has been New Labour's historic project to end the notion of the social as you and I understand it."

He was talking about the manner in which individuals had become atomised consumers?

"Yes, and the attempts to make all our relationships mimic that. But what makes it complicated is that there are plenty of references in New Labour to building up community. They have bought the language and evacuated it. You ask me about progressive politics. Progressive politics is in their mouth every day. Community is in their mouth every day. Reform has been absorbed by them and re-used in quite a different way. It's that transvaluation of all the key terms, that linguistic move that New Labour has made, which presents anyone who is trying to take a critical approach with a tremendous problem. What terms can you use to speak about your objections?"

But that still had a slightly despairing edge. What about those sites of resistance he'd written about so vigorously in the past, those places where opposition could form to political practices or to the 'common sense' message peddled by the media. (I remembered him once saying that the more obvious a statement, the more ideological it was).

"Well, of course there are sites of resistance but I don't see how they cohere as a political programme, as a philosophy, even a statement. I don't see anyone who thinks they might try to articulate such a statement. Let's take the education bill. There was once an historic programme to educate all children well. Even bloody Adam Smith believed in that. You couldn't have a market society without a level playing field, so everyone had to be decently educated. That historic programme is now going. Now, we are going to trust capital to teach our children. Now we are going to have an education market, as much choice as you can so that individuals can maximise their opportunities. But people don't want to choose their school and their hospital. They want the best hospital and the best school for all. Charles Clarke says people don't care who provides such things. I care. I don't think anyone should make a profit out of health. Funny old socialist ideas like that. One of the tremendous things that the National Health Service did was to de-commodify health. It said health is a common value and therefore has to be taken out of the connection with profit. You can't just marketise and privatise the whole of the National Health Service and then tell me it's exactly as Beveridge wanted it. It's that line that drives me completely batty."

I recognised that my slightly snide intimation that Stuart's basic political instincts had been blunted by too many hours hanging around art galleries had already been rebuffed. But why wasn't anyone else privy to his powerful anger? The time constraints caused by his illness and his concerns about public speaking shouldn't prevent him from broadcasting to get across his views. Was he held back by his own powerful analysis of how the media manufactured consent, of how it excluded the asking of certain questions?

"Oh yes, those consensual underpinnings make it difficult. I listen to the argy bargy on Today and I wait for someone to say 'you know, one of the reasons why people may not have voted Labour is that they don't identify at all with their programme.' Nobody says that. It's outside the limits of what counts as political conversation. Political conversation nowadays is about techniques of delivery. Cameron says what New Labour wants to do is fine, but there are problems about delivery. It's all part of the pretence that there aren't deep ideological divisions when in fact those ideological divisions are simply waiting to be articulated. But hardly anybody does so. You know, the person who comes closest to giving an anti-consensual view – and it's astonishing to me – is Roy Hattersley." He smiles at my surprise. "Yes, I agree more with him than with all the other correspondents who tell me about the political world in a narrow way. There are huge political issues out there, about where this country goes, about where it stands in relation to the rest of the world, which are not in the conversation. There's no point in me trying to make a TV career on the basis of one or two interventions. You can only do that if there is already an organised conversation going on."

"You must have been amused by George Galloway's attempts to use Celebrity Big Brother as an intervention?" "Oh yes. His completely mistaken notion that this was an authentic site of the popular and that one could go into it and pass a message to the outside in an untransformed way. And the form completely defeated him." Stuart shakes his head in disbelief at such naïveté.

I was ready to move away from my disillusionment thesis by now, but I found myself recalling Stephen Howe's review of Perry Anderson's new book which suggests that Anderson no longer seems to be engaged in a conversation with Marx. Did Stuart also feel that Marx was no longer such a salient reference point?

"I am still a Marxist in terms of what Marx says about capital. Capital remains an incredible revolutionary force. It has transformed our lives. We are now seeing yet another globalisation to create the world as a market for capital. This is about the seventh attempt. We've had all kinds of globalisations: imperialism, colonisation, Cold War, American hegemony. Now Blair aspires that capitalists should provide healthcare for my grandchild, that Barclays or Tesco should run my school. It's an astonishing aspiration. It only happens when capital becomes such a huge global force."

But wasn't there now another huge global force that had hardly merited a mention by earnest radicals in the '70s, '80s and '90s: the rise and rise of fundamentalist religion. Was this a turn that he had envisaged?

"I wouldn't say that I had envisaged it, but let's say that I am less surprised than other people are by it. You see, I think liberalism is stupid about culture and, of course, that includes religion. I think culture has been waiting to take its revenge on secularisation and rationalism and modernity. Even in the most fragmented modern secularised world, some sets of meanings are necessary for us to have a coherent life ourselves and to conduct the dialogue of difference with others."

This seemed to me, an extraordinary echo of John Gray's assertion (in the last edition of NH) that secularisation and liberal humanism contained within them the very same notions of self-improvement and progress towards a better world that lay at the heart of religion. In that sense the rise of fundamentalism could simply be regarded as the return of the repressed.

Stuart wasn't the least bit deterred by my attempts to align him with the fatalistic Gray.

"Yes, I think there is something to be said for the view that liberal humanists acquired a religious cast, that they entertained a messianic hope but one located on material terrain not in the sky. But I would give a different account. Liberal humanism failed because it applied to only a third, an eighth, a tenth, of the world. It had no conception of difference, no conception that when the rest of the world came into history it could do anything else but think itself through the same things and in the same way. It failed to understand other cultures. You have to know how different you are from the other before you can construct an identity for yourself."

So presumably he wouldn't want to join writers like Stephen Eric Bronner who see the present expansion of religious fundamentalism and the new restrictions upon free speech and assembly as an opportunity to revisit and 'reclaim' the Enlightenment?

"I am tremendously a child of the Enlightenment. I know what the Enlightenment did to free us from superstition, from religion. I know what it did to constitute the rule of law as a fiction, but a necessary fiction with real effects on binding people not to eat each other. All of these things are tremendous advances. But at the heart of the Enlightenment is the failure to deal with race. Of course it doesn't say what was said in pre-Enlightenment days about these other people being a totally different species, that they are less than human, that slaves belong to another creation. It did bring everyone into one creation. But it did so only within evolutionary differences, within the differences between the children of civilisation and those who were truly rational. And that difference has never been lost. I am though interested in how to develop the Enlightenment now and would say that one of the great tragedies of Islam is that it has not had its own Enlightenment and therefore there is no coherent point where it can break through the crust and begin to define what being a Muslim might be like in the modern world."

Stuart Hall has always had a galvanising effect upon his many audiences. After reading or listening to him one not only feels closer to understanding the world but also considerably more inclined to devote one's efforts to changing it. But that does not mean that he wants to promote any specific political acts. "I can't think creatively as a policy person," he said in an interview in 1998 with Marxism Today. "I'm an intellectual – and I can fight the intellectual struggle."

Another more theoretical reason why Hall fails to tie his banner to specific actions is his constant awareness that human agency is tempered by circumstances. In Marx's words, "men make history but not on conditions of their own making." This is not, he insists, a pessimistic view.

"I don't believe in a one-sided accentuation of the degree of freedom of historical movement available to us. The agency has to first of all submit itself to the logic of what is there, to the ground it has to operate on. The most original statement has to be made in a language which will always carry the traces of how others have spoken."

I hadn't meant to talk to Stuart about cultural studies. But I realised that his pleas for a proper recognition of the ground upon which we operate was a way of referring to the ground-clearing work, the radical intellectual practice, that he hoped cultural studies might undertake. Was he still interested in that version of the subject?

"Yes, I do want to go on thinking about cultural studies. But not as a field. I never defended it as a field. I think that as a field it contains a lot of rubbish."

So I might still find him sitting in front of the television busily decoding its text and analysing the lack of fit between the broadcaster and the audience?

"I speak and talk to the radio and the TV all the time. I say, 'that is not true' and 'you are lying through your teeth' and 'that cannot be so'. I keep up a running dialogue and critically engage with the people who write in the newspapers and journals that I read. I have this quarrel in my head. What I want to know is why doesn't anyone articulate a philosophical position about what modern societies might do to make an alternative kind of life. What about the possibility that the public might govern the private rather than the private govern everything? Some societies are making it differently from ours. Sweden is a genuine example. But it is under pressure. It won't last very long. If it is not protected globalisation will run away with it towards the market, individualism, entrepreneurialism, competitiveness."

Until this point I've been too interested in the conversation to notice how tired Stuart has become. But now, as he pauses to overcome a brief coughing fit, I realise that I've been very selfish. Given the chance that so many others would have relished, I've been indulgent. I search for a gentle mildly optimistic out. "So there are some grounds for hope?"

"I think things are stuck. I am not so disillusioned as to think that history is finished. But I do think that what Gramsci would call the balance of social forces are very powerfully against hope."