That phrase, a Nazi slogan that means "Work will set you free", was placed over the entrances of many concentration camps. Whether the Nazis knew the cruel irony inherent in this phrase, or whether they only used it because it was a common Nazi slogan and the irony was only apparent after the fact or to the victims, is not exactly something I am knowledgeable enough about to comment on. What I do know is that this meme, and the cruel irony contained wherein, is commonly found even now in Western democracies, known under other words: the work ethic or the American Dream. And that as revolutionaries, we are not very interested in whether our elites and the intellectuals that serve them and shape our culture are aware of the cruelty in this concept, or if they simply are parroting it because they truly believe in it.
The irony is, for sure, less cruel, or at least less directly so, to the international working class than it was to the victims of the Holocaust. The Jews were being deliberatly, systematically and immediatly slaughtered by the Nazis, so the responsability was stark, clear and undeniable. The members of the international working class are sometimes directly slaughtered, more often indirectly, and mostly in ways where the responsability is diffused, muddled, and indirect. And responsability is often shared, widely, by people who are both executioners and victims. But a miner who dies of a work-related illness that would have been preventable if it wasn't for cost-cutting and the profit motive is still as dead. A child that dies of malnutrition is still as dead. A single mother who kills herself out of despair because she can't pay the bills is still as dead. A union member in a Latin American country that gets beaten to death by police during a strike is still as dead.
"Work will set you free". It is a common belief in the West that if you work hard, save up, do as you're told by the boss, are a good person, that you will be rewarded. The American and Canadian middle class is full of people who worked hard to be where they are, so it is full of people who feel entitled to have what they have. But American and Canadian society is also full of plenty of people who worked hard and got nothing. It is full of people who were born to wealth. It seems to me that being deserving is not enough, or necessary, to have a good life. The primary thing to have is luck. Luck to be born in the right family, to have access to the right ressources, the right connections. Luck not to get a life-altering illness at the wrong moment. Luck to not get killed on the job because of cost-cutting on security.
"Work will set you free". Except we work 40-plus hours on the job, in an environment that is usually the farthest away from freedom that you can find. Most workplaces are regimented, bureaucratic private fiefs. Some people work freelance, which basically means that they work with multiple regimented, bureaucratic private fiefs and on top of that don't know if they're going to get work next week. Some people run other people. They tend to have a tad more freedom, though as Jack London once wrote "they are so tied up to the machine that they sit on top of it". A boss, a foreman who shows compassion and humanity, who doesn't obey market imperatives, will be crushed and replaced by someone more willing to do anything to make a buck. One can hate the boss but one cannot deny this simple fact. It is not the Man that one hates but the Position. The same man in any other environment might have been likable, a friend even. But dog-eat-dog capitalism, as a system, does not foster this. Class war isn't something that we radicals invented. We just named it. It existed prior.
"Work will set you free". Except for the number of people, like both my parents, who fall to depression, burn-outs, stress or other work-related mental and physical illnesses. Some, lucky them, have health benefits and sick leaves. Some don't.
"Work will set you free". In a way, some of the more individualistic of the anarchist tendencies might accuse us "workerist" anarchocommunists and anarchosyndicalists of falling prey to the same mythology. But it would be, of course, a misunderstanding. If that which imprisons us the most is work, then the leverage point of society is the working place. It is where the struggle is the most intense. It is where we must go to do battle. It is where we build the barricades.
Struggle will make you free. Not work. At least, not until our workplaces are free.