RECENTLY, I was quite literally asked to give a short speech about vomit. Specifically, I was tasked with describing the “poison” that society is collectively ingesting that I’d most like to have us heave up and expel from our political body.

All the obvious evils of our era came to mind, from poverty and exploitation to civil war and political violence. But I didn’t choose them because, in a sense, these toxins are not deliberately ingested, but instead emerge as by-products of our way of life: nobody chooses to live in poverty, and the rich create exploitation for others by accident, rather than by any conscious or malicious intention, most of the time, anyway.

This isn’t necessarily the case with the poison I eventually identified – victimhood. Online and offline, there is a growing trend for consciously identifying as a victim and for labelling groups of people as victims, and, crucially, it seems to be designed as part of an apparently left-wing strategy of personal care. The trend genuinely worries me, over and above my concerns about poverty and violence, because it gets to the heart of how we solve all these other problems, particularly among progressives who genuinely wish to help the exploited and the oppressed.

I have always believed in a politics of emancipation, for women, for workers and for oppressed nations. I believe that succeeding with this kind politics will determine whether we solve all the big problems, and whether these problems will be around to trouble our grandchildren and their grandchildren. And I believe that victimhood politics, though well-intentioned, is often built on the opposite psychological impulses, impulses which reinforce individualist, consumerist and managerial solutions.

That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, and I understand why victim politics came about. When I was growing up, the dominant type of feminism was very corporate. It was often called “post-feminism”, and in its worst forms it tended to involve wearing a mini skirt to get noticed and break through the glass ceiling. This was a bastardised form of the social movement feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. It was about empowerment, yes, but empowerment by adapting to a male-dominated world. You might have been told more recently, that women should “lean in” to get better jobs: that’s just the latest version of an old idea.

Victim politics probably came about as a reaction against this. Essentially, it started as a way of saying there are actual barriers and hidden forms of discrimination that will stop me succeeding in a capitalist world. And this, after all, was correct. Only a minority were really benefitting from the “lean in” culture. The rest of us still faced barriers based on gender, skin colour, health, and so on.

When capitalist individualism says that if you aren’t getting rich, you’re a failure, the new politics replied that if we are failures it is because we are victims. It emerged as a defence mechanism, a way to maintain your sense of self, in a world of huge inequalities and personal vulnerability, a world without old-fashioned collective solutions like socialism.

Increasingly, though, victimhood is more than an initial defence mechanism. It’s become a badge of status and honour. With corporate social media technologies encouraging feedback loops of permanent outrage, opportunities for feeling offended or aggrieved have expanded exponentially, and so have the opportunities to attract sympathy to yourself. The result is that, rather than try to demonstrate our strength or inner worth, the offended parties now work to highlight their oppression. Advertising your victimhood is a way of demanding help from others and proving that you are worthy of honour.

You might think I’m talking about advocates of identity politics here. But no, this is far more general. Indeed, it probably started with the right. Look at any tabloid newspaper, and you find people taking mortal offence at the tiniest of slights which are often non-existent. For instance, every year the Daily Mail will have a story about a local council that “banned Christmas” because they printed a card with the words “happy holidays” on it.

This offence, which was probably not even deliberate, leads white Christians to believe that they are becoming an oppressed group and deserve more sympathy and honour from the public. They will stream on to forums, letters pages, and television shows to proclaim their victimhood to the world.

So this is a general culture phenomenon, regardless of ideology. And this is the problem with the Americanised idea of culture wars. Conservatives and religious people feel slighted, ignored and oppressed by political correctness, and progressives feel slighted, ignored and oppressed by conservatives. And feelings, today, are as valuable as proof.

The new left-wing identity politics, however, has a distinct element to it. This is the tendency to take offence on behalf of groups that we picture as “victims”.

We then gain status by our ability to adopt a specialised language that makes it impossible to offend these groups. This has a strong “feelgood” element to it, since it reinforces our sense of ourselves as morally superior people.

My interest, though, is in building a collective politics of emancipation. This often has the same motives as an individualist strategy of victimhood, but it’s the opposite in other respects.

First, collective politics aims to build power rather than sympathy. Second, it aims to challenge systems rather than “bad” individuals. Third, it has an endgame: I want to build the power to overturn the institutions of society, but, in the process, to seek truth and reconciliation with oppressors.

If you imagine yourself in victimhood, and go no further than that, it’s a barrier to build collective power. It leads you to find enemies in individuals not in systems, which weakens you further. And there’s no endgame, other than looking to our personal struggles.

It’s arguably even worse when you imagine oppressed groups as victims, and yourself riding to the rescue on their behalf. Yes, solidarity is the greatest thing we have to offer. But positioning yourself as the saviour, protecting the weak from all insults, ends up eradicating their capacity for self-emancipation – that’s not solidarity. Worse, progressives can feel actively slighted when oppressed people, with all their contradictions, act and speak for themselves.

I heard the perfect example to illustrate this recently. A friend of mine told me of a student solidarity trip to Palestine that started fine but went radically downhill when the students discovered that the Palestinians had guns to defend themselves with.

They had presumably imagined that an oppressed nationality in a warzone would suffer their victimhood in the fashion prescribed by Western liberals. Many delegates were literally in tears when they discovered the Palestinian capacity for armed resistance, and the honour that these fighters gained in their communities.

The tragedy of this incident is the ultimate good intentions of these European liberals. They wanted the Palestinians to win their freedom. They just couldn’t imagine the Palestinians doing it themselves and wanted them instead to fit into a norm that could bring sympathy to their cause in a student union – so that “we” can save them.

There’s honour in those motives, but it’s a long way from emancipation and a world away from solidarity, and that’s where much of our politics is failing today.