Stuart Hall says the points of reference that organised his political world are gone. Still, Laurie Taylor finds that the cultural theorist has not lost his fire
When people heard I'd be meeting Stuart Hall, many asked me to find out how he was. On the face of it, they were asking for medical details - he has suffered from renal failure - but the intensity of their inquiries suggested that they were really asking if Hall was still a force.
Could one of the founding figures of cultural studies and of the New Left Review 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?
He is on dialysis three days a week, so he doesn't have much time for writing about politics. "When you write about politics everybody says 'come and talk'," he says. "I can't do that any longer. 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 that disconcert me so much as the slight guilt I feel about harbouring the idea that the real reason for his relative political silence is not so much illness as disillusionment. I've been told that's the reason he now devotes such time to the visual arts.
He says simply that he wanted to do something new when he retired. "I didn't fancy being an academic without an institution. I've always worked with institutional collectives - the Open University, the Birmingham Centre [for Contemporary Cultural Studies], the New Left Review.
"Without some sort of grouping I feel kind of lost. The idea of trying to do it 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 since the 1980s 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."
But he is "deeply politically disillusioned". "For the first time I feel like a dinosaur," he says. "Not in regard to the particular things or the particular programmes 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."
Is he talking about the manner in which individuals have 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.
Progressive politics is in their mouth every day. Community is in their mouth every day. Reform has been absorbed by them and reused in quite a different way. It's that transvaluation of all the key terms, that linguistic move that new Labour has made that 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 is there not some resistance to this? "Well, of course there are sites of resistance," he retorts, but adds: "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 going. Now we are to trust capital to teach our children. We are going to have an education market.
"But my image is different. I want a school and a hospital for all people. People don't want to choose their school and their hospital. They want the best hospital and the best school for all. Charles Clarke [the Home Secretary] 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 the NHS did was to de-commodify health. It said health is a common value and has to be taken out of the connection with profit. You can't just marketise the NHS, then tell me it's exactly as Beveridge wanted it."
I recognise that my slightly snide intimation that Hall's basic political instincts had been blunted by too many hours hanging around art galleries has already been rebuffed. But why doesn't he vent his anger publicly? Partly, he says, it is because the media's "consensual underpinnings" have turned political conversation into a question of techniques of delivery.
"[David] Cameron [the Tory Party leader] 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. 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."
He is not surprised by the rise of religious fundamentalism. "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.
"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 but think itself through the same things and in the same way. It failed to understand other cultures."
What is the answer? A reclaiming of Enlightenment values? Hall says the Enlightenment made many advances, but at its heart was "the failure to deal with race", with pre-Enlightenment ideas that there are people who are "a totally different species, less than human", who are different from "the children of civilisation and those who are truly rational".
"That difference has never been lost," he says. But he adds that he is interested in how to develop the Enlightenment. "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."
So what can be done? Hall's Marxism provides him with the continuous reminder 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, Hall insists, a pessimistic view.
"When you say agency, what I see is a one-sided accentuation of the degree of freedom of historical movement available to us. I don't believe in that.
The agency has to first of all submit itself to the logic of what is there, to the ground it has to operate on. It can't do something until it knows the ground on which it operates. The most original statement has to be made in a language that will always carry the traces of how others have spoken."
Is there, though, grounds for optimism, given global circumstances? "I think things are stuck," says Hall. "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."
This is an edited extract from the interview that appears in the current issue of New Humanist , available from March 6.