Until the Civil War, the Southern economy depended largely on its cotton production, which relied on slave labor for the intensive work. The slave-driven economy brought great wealth to the plantation owners and left the South relatively untouched by the industrial revolution that swept the North. The South became dependent on the North and on England to buy its crops and to supply manufactured goods. As Rhett explains to the men at Twelve Oaks, the South has raw resources but lacks means of production. When the North blocks off Southern ports, the South finds its markets cut off. It can neither export its crops for income nor import goods for consumption. Blockade-runners like Rhett become invaluable as a way of getting and selling goods. As the blockade tightens, the entire South suffers from a shortage of goods and skyrocketing prices.

Those people who control resources—government contractors and blockade-runners like Rhett—soon win the public’s ire by profiting from the scarcity of goods. The people who control the goods can control the prices. Because goods are so scarce, demand rises, and people like Rhett can push prices to astronomical heights, sometimes even holding onto goods instead of selling them right away so that prices go up still more. Southerners initially bless the blockade-runners for procuring goods, but as they begin to understand the reality of price-fixing, their praise turns to hatred. The profiteering of the blockade-runners marks the beginning of the South’s helplessness, which continues with the postwar descent of the carpetbaggers, Northerners who go down South to profit under Reconstruction-era policies.

Some critics fault Mitchell’s novel for focusing entirely on the upper classes, glorifying Southern culture and glossing over its faults. Mitchell paints a picture of a South victimized by greed and selfishness. For example, she portrays the plantation owners as helpless in the face of the profiteer’s opportunism. She condemns hypocritical government contractors and the Southerners who stay in the local militia instead of going into battle farther north. Other inhabitants of the South seem to exist in a harmless, happy world. Mitchell suggests that their only sin is naiveté. However, portraying wealthy Southerners as victims of profiteering ignores the history of how the plantation owners accumulated the wealth of which they soon found themselves stripped. Gerald, a self-made man, gets his plantation through a poker game, but his success, like the success of every plantation owner in the South, depends upon the exploitation of slaves and the crowding out of poor whites like the Slatterys. Neither the plantation owners nor Mitchell acknowledge the fact that most rich Southerners succeed by oppressing people. Consistent with the sentiments of her time and class, Mitchell acknowledges only the wrongs committed against the upper class.