Coaching for the nation: A new ‘moral and ethical assemblage’ for Israel’s last republican generation

Since the early 2000s, coaching has enjoyed great popularity in Israel, both in the workplace and in the sphere of personal life.1 A myriad of for-profit institutes and higher-learning institutions offer coaching training programs and thousands of Israelis have become certified coaches.2 Moreover, coaching has made its way into mainstream media culture, as indicated by the proliferation of reality TV-shows, radio talk-shows and self-help books dedicated to the topic. The ascendancy of coaching in Israel is not an isolated phenomenon, but can be seen in the context of the rapid expansion of a personal development industry including workshops, seminars, popular success literature and a wide variety of consulting and therapeutic services. Starting in the eighties as a somewhat fringe phenomenon (Beit-Hallahmi, 1992), this industry has flourished in Israel in the last twenty years as a counterpart to the increasing individualization and neoliberalization of Israeli society. As Israeli sociologists have noted, following the decline of the Labor Zionist collectivistic ethos in the late seventies, (mostly) middle-class secular Israelis began looking for meaning and self-fulfilment in the private sphere (Almog, 2001; Ram. 2000, 2008; Shafir & Peled, 2002).

The growing popularity of coaching among Israel’s middle-class may thus be interpreted as reflecting this individualization trend (see Pagis, 2016). As a new therapeutic practice that blends psychological and managerial discourses, coaching aims at the production of autonomous, self-responsible, ‘enterprising selves’ (Du Gay, 1996; Rose, 1996) attuned to the challenges of work and life under neoliberalism. At the same time, it regards all forms of dependence and collective commitments as problematic remnants of an outdated economic and social configuration (Binkley, 2011b). As Mâkinen explains, ‘the conception of selfhood that is constructed in coaching is a variation of a theme that is by now familiar from countless other contexts, namely the ideal subject of neoliberal individualism’ (2014: 826). But as I will argue in this chapter, in order to better understand the appeal of coaching in contemporary Israeli society, we need to move beyond a monolithic and linear interpretation of neoliberal rationalities of government and look into the ways that these rationalities are ‘reorganizing subjectivities tied to earlier social ways of governing [...] rather than simply challenging or replacing them’ (Brady, 2014: 30). Such an approach places analytical emphasis on processes of assembly rather than on resultant formations and therefore highlights the contingency and provisionality of neoliberal govermnentalities. As Higgins and Larner (2017: 5) argue, ‘these emergent assemblages may cohere in ways that constitute spaces, sites and subjects as “neoliberal”, but they may also at the same time involve multiple, contradictory and overlapping projects and practices that exceed any straightforward reading as neoliberalism'. Hence, instead of assuming coaching’s individualizing and depoliticizing effects, we should ask how its core ideas and practices enter into assemblages that also include existing local discourses and traditions of the self and its involvement in public life.

This chapter is based on a case study of Israeli coaches from what I term ‘the last republican generation.’ Members of this ethno-class generational unit were born in the fifties and early sixties and had their formative experiences in the era before the neoliberal economic turn in Israel (generally dated to the mid-eighties). As members of the veteran,3 mostly Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin) social elite,4 they were socialized into the Labor Zionist collectivistic and nationalistic ethos, which tied individual self-realization with the fulfilment of collective goals (such as national security, immigrant absorption, frontier settlement and the building of national institutions) and loyalty to the state. This ethos was crystallized in a republican discourse of civic virtue that placed this group as a ‘service elite’ and rewarded it accordingly (Shafir & Peled, 2002). On the other hand, this was the first generation of the veteran middle-class that adopted a culture of hedonistic individualism and sought to realize its personal and professional abilities in the spheres of work and leisure (Almog, 2001; Ram, 2008). The recent turn of many of its members to the burgeoning field of coaching,5 often after long careers as salaried employees in large bureaucratic organizations, seems to conform to this generational pattern of withdrawal into the private realm and increasing preoccupation with the self. But as I will show in this chapter, the adoption of the neoliberal therapeutic discourse of coaching by this dominant social group cannot be reduced to a single and coherent cultural logic of individualization, as it defies the opposition between individual self-development and social and political engagement. Rather, coaching takes part in a new ‘moral and ethical assemblage’ (Zigon, 2010; 2011) that combines neoliberal rationalities with the Labor Zionist republican ethos.

The data for this chapter comes from 42 in-depth interviews with members of the last republican generation who chose coaching as a second (or third) career. The interviews were conducted between 2016 and 2017 in different locations in Central and Southern Israel and lasted two hours on average. All interviews started with the open question ‘tell me about yourself; you can start wherever you want,’ and subsequently turned to the participants’ career paths and their involvement in coaching. Research participants were initially recruited from personal websites, via an e-mail sent to affiliates of the Israeli Coaching Bureau (one of the two main coaching professional associations in Israel) and through personal acquaintances. I then used a snowball sampling technique, asking interviewees to provide the names of friends and acquaintances who are also involved in the field of coaching. Roughly two-thirds of participants were women, which seems to reflect their predominance in the profession. Most interviewees had training in various self-development techniques besides coaching, such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), alternative medicine, mediation, management consulting and more. Moreover, their coaching practices varied considerably, ranging from business and career coaching to more life-focused forms of coaching, such as relationship coaching, coaching for adults and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), ontological coaching (a ‘spiritual’ brand of coaching roughly inspired by the Landmark Forum), retirement coaching and more. Notwithstanding this variation, virtually all inteiviewees adhered to some basic principles and techniques that are characteristic of coaching, such as goalsetting and strategic planning, identification and reinforcement of personal abilities and strengths, a focus on short-term processes and results and an orientation to the future.

The chapter begins with an introduction to contemporary debates on neoliberal subjectivity and the role of therapeutic culture. The following sections examine different modes of articulation between neoliberal therapeutic discourses and the Labor Zionist collectivistic ethos through the interviewees’ stories of involvement in coaching. The concluding section will wrap up the chapter by suggesting a look at these articulations through the lens of assemblage theory.

Neoliberal subjectivity and the critique of therapeutic culture

In the last twenty-five years, a growing body of literature in the social sciences has been preoccupied with the construction of subjectivity under neoliberalism. Inspired by the Foucauldian tradition, these studies analyze neoliberalism as a form of governmental reason that aims to ‘conduct the conduct’ of free subjects (Foucault, 1991). Neoliberal governmentality works through the cultivation of autonomous, entrepreneurial dispositions within subjects and the marketization of social relations (Binkley, 2014; Rose, 1996). As Foucault argued in The Birth of Biopolitics, neoliberalism generalizes the enterprise form within the social body and makes it a model of social relations and of existence itself (2008: 241-2). This entrepreneurialization of society has profound social consequences:

the organization of society around a multiplicity of individual enterprises profoundly depoliticizes social and political relations by fragmenting collective values of care, duty and obligation, and displacing them back on to the managed autonomy of the individual.

(McNay, 2009: 65)

This process of social desolidarization (Hartmann & Honneth, 2006) results from the coronation of economic interest and free choice as irreducible principles of human action. The neoliberal subject, or homo economicus, is driven solely by his own egoistic self-interest, which is aimed at the maximization of his own happiness and well-being. Moreover, the construction of this neoliberal subject includes practices of desubj edification aimed at eradicating former collectivistic and dependent dispositions rooted in earlier forms of social

Coaching for the nation 95 governance (Binkley, 2009, 2011a, 2011b). In this sense, the neoliberal governance of the self atomizes our understanding of social relations and erodes conceptions of the public domain (McNay, 2009: 64). Neoliberal subjects tend to recast social and political problems as personal ones and seek for individualized solutions (Scharff, 2016).

In this respect, the neo-Foucauldian critique of the neoliberal governance of the self shares certain key assumptions with what Aubry and Travis (2015) have recently termed ’the canonical critique of therapeutic culture'. This strand of critique, best expressed by commentators such as Phillip Rieff, Christopher Lasch, Richard Sennett and Robert Bellah (and more recently by Frank Furedi, Philip Cushman and James Nolan Jr.), posits that late modernity is characterized by the rise of a therapeutic ethos that encourages an individualistic conception of the self and depoliticizes and privatizes social life. The ‘fall narrative’ offered by these critics blames therapeutic culture for the decline of public life and the lack of commitment to social institutions. As Eva Illouz (2008: 2) summarizes this critique:

in calling on us to withdraw into ourselves, the therapeutic persuasion has made us abandon the great realms of citizenship and politics and cannot provide us with an intelligible way of linking the private self to the public sphere because it has emptied the self of its communal and political content, replacing this content with a narcissistic self-concern.

More recent accounts of therapeutic culture, though more nuanced and less condemnatory, still draw a dichotomy between individualized self-development and political and social engagement (Gill & Orgad, 2015; Matza, 2009; McGee, 2005; Nehring et al., 2016; Sahnenniemi, 2012). While they often acknowledge the multifaceted nature of therapeutic culture and explore its entanglement with local discourses, many of these studies ultimately see therapy as an individualizing and depoliticizing force. In this chapter, I would like to challenge the dichotomous view that opposes ‘the therapeutic ethos to a model of civic virtue or political engagement' (Illouz, 2008: 223) by suggesting that the adoption of neoliberal therapeutic discourses and practices does not necessarily entail a withdrawal into the private realm nor the abandonment of a vision of the common good. On the contrary, it may give way to new forms of political and social engagement.

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