The Breakaway Boss: Semiperipheral Innovations and the Rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad

Kevan Harris


Within a year of becoming president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad had already confused much of the world. Explanations of his political ascent in a semi-peripheral country rely largely on the concept of charismatic authority. This is a non-explanation, however, as the charismatic historical figure who seemingly holds creative command over the social world also has to be created. Instead, I argue that Ahmadinezhad’s trajectory from an Islamist engineering student to the presidency of a post-revolutionary state highlights three mechanisms of social-political innovation that are bounded by space and time: the situated overlap of social capital, the paradox of vertical clientage, and the breakaway of the machine boss. These mechanisms are usually misread as timeless signifiers of national backwardness or as charismatic dei ex machina. By showing these mechanisms at work through biography, we can challenge scholarly and popular explanations of social change that implicitly rehash modernization theory.

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