Belle Gibson’s cancer lie is the tedious fulfilment of New Age thought

Belle Gibson, cook and author
‘New Age philosophy is the clearest example of a utopian movement utterly absorbed by capitalism.’ Belle Gibson. Photograph: Penguin

You could say that the dumbest thing the disgraced wellness blogger Belle Gibson did was actually admit that, while she “is passionate about avoiding gluten, dairy and coffee” she doesn’t know anything about cancer. That’s the final, unforgivable sin of New Age quackery: the prostration to science, the admission that there may be a smidgen of truth in the supposedly unknowable world of Big Pharma.

But Gibson needed to fake cancer, because the New Age narrative of transcending physical and spiritual sickness is so ingrained into its marketing. New Age philosophy is the clearest example of a utopian movement utterly absorbed by capitalism, which it once (feebly) opposed.

Its heterodox, gnostic approach to life, which emerged in the 1960s, was never really radical. While the premises of New Age seem incompatible with the modern neoliberal mode – the pursuit of simple, sustainable living, opposition to consumerism, and commitment to alternative therapy in lieu of modern medicine – the desire of practitioners to return to an Edenic, premodern state was quickly co-opted by the systems and institutions it opposed.

By the early 21st century, nearly everyone had realised this. Even the Vatican concluded after a six year investigation that “New Age is a misleading answer to the oldest hopes of man”, criticising the most clearly sacrilegious and idolatrous aspects of the lifestyle, particularly those taken from Eastern traditions: feng shui, yoga, meditation and so on.

The Vatican’s study also noted that “New Age shares many of the values espoused by enterprise culture and the ‘prosperity Gospel’ and also by the consumer culture”.

Kimberly Lau argued in her 2000 book New Age Capitalism that the orientalist pet obsessions of the first wave of true believers were quickly seized upon by marketers who were able to imbue their products with a sense of transcendent self-improvement. New adherents came to New Age thought through a production line of crank diets and crystal healing products, rather than any substantive politics of the self. This culture, built around objects and processes without any higher purpose, showed that you can’t criticise the most cherished shibboleths of capitalism when you’re fully immersed in them.

Whole Foods, the chain which most seamlessly married New Age macrobiotic nutrition with American casino consumerism, perfectly encapsulates these internal tensions and puts them to work. Founder and CEO John Mackey, author of libertarian tract Conscious Capitalism, started his career playing a straight green democratic socialist card: he lived and worked in a vegetarian housing co-op in Austin, Texas.

As he tried to monetise the organic wholefoods game, he found that he was unable to pay “excessive” staff wages and turned to the economics of Austrian School thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. He is now one of the most aggressive and outspoken opponents of labour unions and universal healthcare in American business.

For businesses like Whole Foods, the basic New Age dietary philosophy, which calls for organic whole food and ayurvedic principles of balance and sustainability, is a means of servicing a particular market: people for whom food is not merely sustenance but also radical self-improvement.

It’s the same mode of thought which turns kombucha, a bacterial fermentation of tea which has been propped up as everything from a cure for baldness to a cure for Aids, into the trendy drink du jour for nouveau riche New Agers. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the alleged anti-carcinogenic properties of wholefoods are real, any more than the fetishised “benefits” of other marketers’ pitches are real.

So the case of Belle Gibson is not unexpected – rather, it’s a tedious inevitability of New Age thought. Like recently deposed blogger The Food Babe, Gibson tapped into the nebulous mindset also shared by anti-vaxxers and the paleo set: distrust of governments, agribusiness, and pharmaceutical companies, with the solution being both more “natural” and less coercive. It’s important to note that faking illness is not considered a disorder under the DSM-V if the perpetrator does it for profit. I wonder why.