Chapter 15, entitled, "Self-help in Hard times," takes a dim view of both the prosperity of the 1920s and the New Deal reforms brought on by the Great Depression. Zinn documents that most of the money created by the economic boom of the 1920s went to the richest segments of society, causing greater wealth disparities than those that had existed before. Furthermore, the economic boom was based on unstable speculation. The working people, whose strikes and union movements had been crushed during the early 1920s, were not, on the whole, sharing in the prosperity. Rather, the working people were gaining just enough to keep from rebelling.
When the crash came at the end of 1929, the people in power were stunned and unprepared. Roosevelt's election saved capitalism, Zinn argues, by offering workers enough concessions to keep them from having a communist-style revolt while ensuring most of the real power in society remained in the hands of the capitalist classes. Zinn says that Roosevelt was "lukewarm" about forming the National Labor Relations Board and about legitimizing unions, but as wildcat strikes and unrest continued Roosevelt decided this was the best solution for controlling the situation. For instance, the C.I.O. leadership forbade wildcat strikes, in which groups of workers would spontaneously revolt against unfair conditions, even though Zinn says these strikes were effective: the only strikes now allowed had to be authorized by union leadership.
Overall, the chapter paints a picture of a society in which the common person was given just enough material stock and political power to feel part of the system while the people in power continued to make the major decisions and keep hold of the levers of government.
Chapter 15 takes a materialist point of view in analyzing the 1920s. Usually, the time period is wrapped in the social element of the flappers, the dances, and speakeasies. Zinn takes the point of view that the social isolationism that was facilitated at the end of World War I enabled individuals to not pay attention to the minimalist approach government took towards capitalism. It also allowed individuals to be lulled into a false sense of security in not scrutinizing business practices, moving away from regulatory measures, and silencing the workers' movements such as the I.W.W. that participated in strikes to bring attention to these realities. Zinn argues that while there was such a dwelling on social reality, those in the position of power were able to use this ignorance to advance political and economic affairs that emboldened the business community. This materialized in a backlash against workers and ethnic minorities, something that Zinn argues is essential in understanding the rise of the Klan and other reactionary elements in American society. Zinn argues that the Great Depression brought out more social activism such as the Bonus Army and the establishment of "Hoovervilles" as a way to bring back the social and political activism that raised the affairs of unfair and crony capitalism to public interest. This calls out for Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, elements that helped to recover, reform, and provide relief to those who ended up suffering under the heels of capitalist practices in the 1920s.
Chapter 15 is largely about the continued current of worker unrest between World War I and World War II. The chapter begins with a recounting of the general strike in Seattle in 1919, during a wave of postwar labor unrest that included strikes in other cities. After this wave of unrest, the 1920s became a relatively conservative time, as the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) had been largely crushed, Socialism was nearly dead, and the economy was doing well enough to prevent major strikes.
While the 1920s is known as a period of prosperity, the prosperity was concentrated only among the elite. Women had received the right to vote in 1920, but voting was also largely confined to the middle and upper classes. Over time, communism developed in strength, and by the time of the stock market crash in 1929, capitalism seemed dead or at least moribund. Unrest grew in reaction to the Great Depression until Franklin Roosevelt reached the Presidential office in 1933 and instituted a number of reforms. Labor unrest continued in the 1930s until FDR instituted government reforms, such as the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, which gave unions legal status and a place in which to air their grievances. In addition, unions developed their own mechanisms, such as contracts and negotiations, to calm unrest and strikes. Despite feeling recognized by the New Deal, African Americans and their plight tended to remain invisible to most of the country in the 1930s and 1940s.