- Confederate Political Economy: Creating and Managing a Southern Corporatist Nation by Michael Brem Bonner
In Confederate Political Economy: Creating and Managing a Southern Corporatist Nation, Michael Brem Bonner explores the interrelated processes of state formation and industrialization in the U.S. South during the American Civil War. He shows how a proslavery nation obsessed with republicanism, states' rights, and free trade quickly sacrificed these hallowed principles upon the altar of national survival. Bonner makes sense of these developments by studying the Confederacy as a nation born as much out of the war as during the war. The decision to leave the Union precipitated a civil war, which, in turn, left Confederate leaders with the herculean task of cementing national loyalty, mobilizing the citizenry, and securing sufficient military resources. Southern representatives prioritized sovereignty over ideological purity and profit in ways that fostered the emergence of a "Confederate system," or wartime political economy, that was neither the culmination of antebellum politics nor a prologue to the New South (p. 9). In response to the exigencies of war, Bonner argues, "the Confederacy implemented one of the world's first examples of a corporatist political economy" (p. 9). While corporatism tends to evoke twentieth-century political regimes in Italy or Brazil, Bonner suggests it [End Page 172] encapsulates the articulation of authoritarian political culture and public-private industrialization schemes in the Confederacy.
Drawing on extensive government and company records, newspapers, legislative debates, and private correspondence, Bonner deftly shows how military imperatives unleashed antidemocratic political practices, including holding secret legislative sessions and maintaining a strong executive branch that was free from judicial restraint, and protectionist economic policies, such as tariffs and government subsidies, that were designed to bolster the industrial production of war matériel. These anathemas to antebellum southern politics were deemed necessary to sustain the war effort. The Confederate system was not, Bonner insists, a "command economy," in which private industry was completely subsumed within the state; rather, it was a mutually beneficial arrangement through which private industries—including iron, munitions, and railroads—secured profitable government contracts for the duration of the war (p. 3). This unique amalgam of authoritarian politics and profit made up what Bonner calls "expedient corporatism," which reflected a mutually beneficial public-private partnership that enabled Confederate leaders to wage war and ensured that private industries had access to government subsidies, patronage, and protection from competition and were even able to influence national policies (p. 9).
Confederate Political Economy is a well-researched and cogently argued book. While some readers may take issue with Bonner's use of twentieth-century concepts like corporatism to explain nineteenth-century developments, defining the Confederate system as expedient corporatism is productively provocative. The term invites scholars to think about the historical relationship between war and capitalism comparatively and across time. Subsequent research might fruitfully explore other facets of the Confederate system that remain opaque in Bonner's work. A deeper engagement with the actual dynamics of production, that is, labor and subaltern politics on the ground, for example, would have likely allowed him to paint a more comprehensive portrait of the Confederate political economy on its own terms. Unfortunately, Bonner justifies the conspicuous absence of white women and enslaved African Americans from his central cast of characters by dismissing their relative importance to southern political economy. This claim is belied by his own evidence that enslaved African Americans, white women, and white children composed a significant labor force within the industries that lay at the heart of the Confederate system. Nevertheless, Confederate Political Economy has much to teach students of the Civil War era about the political culture and economic policies of a proslavery republic.