The debt is to the Majority World - and to nature
It's a tangled web the hidden hand of the market weaves when it practices to deceive.
Behind the headlines of a monumental foul-up in the mathematics of high finance lies a rather less ugly world. In that world, however, neoliberal orthodoxy (if not capitalism itself) fails to resolve the two great issues facing most of humanity: material poverty and environmental destruction.
This is not entirely surprising, since capitalism is itself largely responsible for sustaining them both.
First, global capitalism still suffers from its original flaw, which is sometimes referred to as 'over production'. Crudely speaking, this means that in its desperate urge to expand it invariably fails to do so fast enough for its own good. This is because capital accumulates and exploits the poor who, as a result, don't have the means to buy the goods that capitalism produces. Gucci handbags will never do the trick.
The figures can be fiddled for a while, but in the end those 'sub-prime' people just don't have the means to own their own homes - any more than hundreds of millions of others have the means to live with even the most basic requirements of human dignity.
So you can look back over the history of industrial capitalism, through colonialism and slavery to corporate globalization and inequity, and see how its debts are invariably incurred with the majority it exploits.
When the crunch comes, that conveniently 'hidden' hand promptly turns things upside down. So, suddenly, governments must come to the rescue. Capitalism is 'too big to fail' – though fail it always does.
In this way, we live forever in the politics of delusion, which led to the most recent 'crunch' and, left to its own devices, will lead to the next one too. Of that much we can be absolutely certain.
So, for example, though the historic debt is owed by the North to the South, by Minority to Majority Worlds, one likely outcome of the present crisis is that even the minimal compensation of 'development aid' will be among its first victims, and with it any realistic expectation of reaching the Millennium Development Goals – or, come to that, the 'mass' markets for the 'goods' that capitalism is so desperate to shift for its own profit and survival.
What's different now, however, is that industrial capitalism in its current neoliberal form clearly does not have the option of being left to its own devices. It has a debt to nature as well, and nature is less amenable to the sleight of that hidden hand.
Since 80 per cent and more of the finite natural resources on earth are consumed by 20 per cent and less of its human population, it's only when there's a 'slump' among that 20 per cent or less that the planet itself seems to stand any reasonable hope of survival.
You'll have guessed already that environmental sanity is the most likely second victim of the current crisis.
As things stand, that is. And things simply will not stand up as they are. There is no alternative to the alternatives that, in that less ugly world, have been maturing for generations, particularly in the Majority World.
Sooner or later, all of us are going to have to educate ourselves about the things that matter most, get engaged and devise new means of political expression – and, for all our sakes, the sooner we do so the better.